Solar System

- Clash of the planets!

While investigating a sun like star situated 300 light years away in the constellation Aries, a team of astronomers found a protoplanetary disk around it. This is quite ordinary but the twist is that the star is a few billion years old!

Normally this type of feature is found around very young stars and provides the fuel for the creation of planets. What could possibly create the disk of dust if the planets had already formed?

Analysis of data obtained from an array of observatories including the Chandra X-ray telescope yielded a quite dramatic truth, the distance of the dust from the star was the same as the distance to Earth and Venus from the Sun. It could only be a result of a collision between two planetary bodies. In addition to this amazing fact, it was also found that the star was part of a binary system. This is quite common in the universe and single stars like the Sun are in the minority.


- The first takes the longest.....

12.8 billion years ago, the Universe hosted a powerful gamma ray burst, only now has its immensely ancient light reached us! This means that this is the earliest GRB detected so far.

It was detected by the Swift satellite towards the direction of the constellation Eridanus. When the gamma rays were first noticed by Swift, it 'swiftly' turned towards the direction of where they came from and the onboard x-ray telescope observed the GRB and found a previously unknown x-ray source.


- Dark dwarf galaxy discovered

A newly discovered dwarf galaxy called Segue 1 is one of the faintest and has one of the lowest stellar populations found. Rather than having an expected low mass, the galaxy is actually a thousand times more massive than it appears!

What contributes to this bizarre composition is an increased quanitity of dark matter. Obviously dark matter can't be visually detected but the light of the galaxy was analysed and the only conclusion that could be derived from the results was an abundance of dark matter accounting for the large mass.

Segue 1 is a satellite of the Milky Way and the lack of stars is due to the galaxy being in close proximity to the Milky Way and its gas being stripped from it. The lack of gas would result in the absence of star formation. It is likely that it will be consumed by the Milky Way in the future, this has happened millions of years in the past as many ghostly streams around the Milky Way have been discovered that, they are all that remain of satellites that spiralled out of control leaving behind a trail of stars.

The dwarf galaxy has a considerably less abundance of stars than the one in the picture on the left and is between 100 and 1000 times more massive. The galaxy in the picture is a dwarf found near a distant galaxy in Ursa Major.


- First ever picture of an exoplanet!

Towards the end of the 20th century, humanity was being amazed by the first views of the planets taken by many space probes. Fast forward a couple of decades and we have our first view of a planet orbiting another star!

Before you start having expectations, the picture doesn't show the planet as anything but a miniscule dot next to the blazing inferno of its star. This incredible image was taken by the Gemini Observatory and the resolution was only possible due to advanced adaptive optics technology.

The star is 500 light years away and what is unusual about the planet is its immense distance from the star, it is equivalent to eleven times more than the void between the Sun and Neptune! As well as visual observations, the spectra of the object was measured and found that the temperature is too cool for it to be a star or a brown dwarf. The analysis of the data also yielded the fact that the planet is eight times bigger than Jupiter, basically it is another "hot Jupiter" but the difference is the huge distance from the star. Another thing that has amazed astronomers is that the star is similar in type to the Sun, therefore increasing the likelihood of finding a solar system similar to ours.

The only downside to this momentous discovery is that there is no confirmation of whether this planet is gravitationally bound to the star or if it a chance line of sight alignment and the planet is free floating in space. Hopefully this will be clarified in two years time.


- The space probe formerly known as.......

Almost three months after it was launched, the GLAST probe has been christened as 'Fermi', named after the Italian scientist Enrico Fermi. The probe will scrutinise the universe in gamma rays and will study dark matter, black holes and the mysterious events that are gamma ray bursts.

The team hope that observations will last for a decade, many new discoveries will be made that will undoubtedly generate even more questions that need to be answered.

The space probe was developed by an international team of 100 scientists, researchers and technicians from France, Germany, Italy, Sweden and Japan. One of the greatest advantages of Fermi is an instrument called the 'Large Area Telescope', this is capable of monitoring a much larger area at once and will be able to constantly monitor any changes in the gamma ray spectrum.

The first light image on the left is the result of four days worth of monitoring the cosmos and unbelievably it would have taken a previous probe about 10 years to acquire the exact same data! What the image shows is the central plane of the Milky Way as well as numerous pulsars, blazars and abnormally active galaxies. It is unimaginable and amazing what Fermi will reveal to us about the universe, we might finally have answers to age old questions such as "What is dark matter?", exciting times lay ahead of us.


- Solar eclipse spectacle!

Two days ago on August 1, skywatchers were treated to the rare and mesmerising spectacle of a solar eclipse. It was visible from Siberia, China, Canada and the Arctic. There was partial visibility in parts of the world such as Russia, Europe, the United Kingdom and Asia. The greatest view was from Siberia with totality lasting an astounding 2 minutes 27 seconds!

The solar eclipse coincides with the Olympics being held in Beijing and many Chinese are treating it as a piece of good luck after the tragedies China has faced recently.


- Liquid lake found on Titan

Before the Cassini space probe was launched to uncover the mysteries of Titan, a moon of Saturn, the general hypothesis was the existence of global lakes that covered the entire moon. Finally Cassini has found a liquid lake called Ontario Lacus.

Hydrocarbon molecules of ethane were detected by the Visual and Infrared Mapping Spectrometer, this instrument enabled a view of the Titan's surface through its thick atmosphere. The implication of this discovery is that Titan is the only solar system object that has liquid lakes besides Earth.


- Mars can support life!

The Phoenix probe has analysed a soil sample dug from a layer of top soil. What it found has excited the mission scientists as well as other astronomers, the soil contains nutrients that are more commonly found on Earth!

Salts that were found include potassium, magnesium, sodium and chlorine but they are also soluble in water on Mars. The acidity of the soil was measured, the pH is between 8 or 9, this means that the soil is alkaline! The alkilinity is similar to soils found in the Antarctic regions on Earth.

These exciting discoveries increase the chance of life actually growing and thriving on Mars, what is required now is detection of nitrates. Hopefully after a bit more digging, Phoenix will find more evidence. The image shows the lab aboard Phoenix that analysed the soil sample.


- Phoenix finds water ice!

Hopes and dreams of Phoenix finding any link to life on Mars have finally been fulfilled!

The Phoenix probe dug a trench and uncovered white material. After a few days, the white substance had disappeared. It was found that the white substance was indeed ice but it was made out of water! What happened is that it turned into vapour without melting.

After images sent back were analysed, the team was fairly confident that it was water ice because of the surrounding temperatures.

The image on the left shows a closeup of an area where the ice was found and the second closeup shows the ice has disappeared.



- Super earth trio found

A team using the HARPS instrument at the La Silla Observatory have found a solar system of three planets that are bigger than Earth.

They were found because of HARPS capability to detect planets that have less than the mass of Jupiter. This increases the likelihood of finding a planet that is nearly the size and mass of Earth.

This discovery is important as previously it was thought that nearly all extrasolar planets were "hot Jupiters". Now with technological advances, smaller planets can be found in the Milky Way.