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NTT snaps the Omega Nebula July 7, 2009

Posted by Sarah in pics.
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This beautiful picture of the Omega Nebula (M17) was release today by ESO. It’s a three-colour composite image taken with the 3.6-m New Technology Telescope at ESO’s La Silla site in Chile. The nebula is a region of active star formation, one of the youngest and nearest to our solar system. A recent paper by Matthew Povich and collaborators reported over 90 candidate newborn stars in the region at varying stages of starbirth. Energetic radiation from hot young stars is exciting and lighting up the gas in the nebula.

The Povich paper contains a complete description of this hotbed of star formation at wavelengths from the radio to X-ray and is an excellent reference if you wold like to learn more.

Image credit: ESO

Lightest exoplanet discovered April 22, 2009

Posted by Sarah in new astronomy, science.
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ESO yesterday reported the discovery of the lightest exoplanet yet. Gliese 581e, the fourth in a family of exolanets around Gliese 581, is just twice as massive as the Earth, which means it could well be rocky rather than gassy like Jupiter or Saturn. The discovery was made by a team of Swiss an French astronomers led by Michel Mayor of Geneva Observatory, who discovered of the first ever exoplanet in 1995, using ESO’s 3.6m telescope at La Silla, Chile.

But Mayor and his team added a cherry to ESO’s cake. Further study of the orbit of Gliese 581d, one of the new planet’s known siblings, has shown that the planet lies well within the host star’s so-called Habitable Zone, where the existence of liquid water is thought to be possible (though that doesn’t mean that it does!).

Nice work!

Image credit: M. House, F. Kamphues (top)

A big week for astronomy March 30, 2009

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This week, starting 2 April, one of the biggest events in the International Year of Astronomy will take place. 100 Hours of Astronomy, one of the year’s Cornerstone programmes, will get thousands of people looking through a telescope at the skies, just like Galileo did 400 years ago, over the course of 5 nights. Tons of great events are taking place, from star parties organised by local astronomy organisations around the world to global webcast events.

The webcast events look particularly fun. The first, called Live Science Centre, will allow anyone with a weblink to participate in discussions about space and astronomy throughout history with scientists in places as far-flung as Germany, South Africa and the US. The Science Centre webcast takes place on 2 April at 17:00 UTC (follow the link to see the time at your location). Around the World in 80 Telescopes is a really cool continuous 24-hour webcast, starting on 3 April at 09:00 UTC that hops around 80 world-class telescopes scattered around the globe and in space to follow live what astronomers are up looking at.And yes, that does include the space telescopes like Hubble, Spitzer and the newly launched Kepler!

This is really one of the big highlights of the IYA and it will be well worth your while to take a peek. So follow the jump over to the website to see what’s happening in your area and mark the webcasts in your diaries. You can also get updates via twitter (@100Hours and @telescopecast). If you own a telescope, take it out onto the street and get your neighbours out.

Super-earth confirmed, first of many? February 3, 2009

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Today with much to-do and under heavy embargoes, scientists have announced the discovery of an extrasolar planet with a mass diameter of just 1.7 times that of the Earth. That’s very very small. With a mass of It whizzes around its host star, Exo-7, in around 20 hours and with a temperature of over 1,000 degrees, is incredibly hot. Using data from the satellite CoRoT (Convection Rotation and planetray Transits), the German-led French-led team of scientists detected the minute dip in the light coming from the host star from the planet passing in front of it. The discovery was confirmed with observations at a number of ground-based observatories, including VLT, the Canada-France-Hawaii telescope, McDonald Observatory.

In case you hadn’t noticed: exoplanet news is coming hard and fast. Every year since 1995, when Mayor & Queloz reported the discovery of 51 Peg b, has seen a number of “major breakthroughs” (see here, here, and many more) in the detection and characterisation of planets around other stars in our Galaxy.  Scientists have pushed the boundaries of our knowledge to a massive extent, and the rapid progress is just fantastic. But brace yourself for more.


Black Hole Shocker! December 11, 2008

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Near-IR image of the galactic centre.

Astronomers have been able to confirm that the centre of our Milky Way Galaxy contains a supermassive black hole, read the headlines (here, here, here) yesterday. Brilliant! The galactic centre observations of the last 15 or so years, at both the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics in Garching and the University of California in LA are really exciting stuff. Videos like this one (and more here)of the stars whizzing round the galactic centre at immense speeds are great. Furthermore, and most excitingly, the mapping of these stars’ motions has allowed astronomers on both sides of the Atlantic to deduce independently that the central mass in our Galaxy is so dense and confined to such a small space that it can only exist in the form of a supermassive black hole.  The observation of the ultra-powerful radio source, Sagittarius A*, in the central region of the Galaxy supports this conclusion, as radio jets are thought to be associated with infalling matter around black holes.

Technology played a crucial part in the discovery: astronomers have only been able to track the stars in the densely crowded galactic centre to the required precision with the aid of adaptive optics, which correct for distortions arising in the Earth’s atmosphere and give the necessary boost to the resolution of the instrument.