Category: Space

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Scientists get first glimpse of black hole eating star, ejecting high-speed flare

November 27, 2015
Johns Hopkins University
An international team of astrophysicists has for the first time witnessed a star being swallowed by a black hole and ejecting a flare of matter moving at nearly the speed of light.

This artists impression shows a black hole consuming a star that has been torn apart by the black hole’s strong gravity. As a result of this massive “meal” the black hole begins to launch a powerful jet that we can detect with radio telescopes.
Credit: NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center/Swift

An international team of astrophysicists led by a Johns Hopkins University scientist has for the first time witnessed a star being swallowed by a black hole and ejecting a flare of matter moving at nearly the speed of light.

The finding reported in the journal Science tracks the star — about the size of our sun — as it shifts from its customary path, slips into the gravitational pull of a supermassive black hole and is sucked in, said Sjoert van Velzen, a Hubble fellow at Johns Hopkins.

“These events are extremely rare,” van Velzen said. “It’s the first time we see everything from the stellar destruction followed by the launch of a conical outflow, also called a jet, and we watched it unfold over several months.”

Black holes are areas of space so dense that irresistible gravitational force stops the escape of matter, gas and even light, rendering them invisible and creating the effect of a void in the fabric of space. Astrophysicists had predicted that when a black hole is force-fed a large amount of gas, in this case a whole star, then a fast-moving jet of plasma — elementary particles in a magnetic field — can escape from near the black hole rim, or “event horizon.” This study suggests this prediction was correct, the scientists said.

“Previous efforts to find evidence for these jets, including my own, were late to the game,” said van Velzen, who led the analysis and coordinated the efforts of 13 other scientists in the United States, the Netherlands, Great Britain and Australia.

Supermassive black holes, the largest of black holes, are believed to exist at the center of most massive galaxies. This particular one lies at the lighter end of the supermassive black hole spectrum, at only about a million times the mass of our sun, but still packing the force to gobble a star.

The first observation of the star being destroyed was made by a team at the Ohio State University, using an optical telescope in Hawaii. That team announced its discovery on Twitter in early December 2014.

After reading about the event, van Velzen contacted an astrophysics team led by Rob Fender at the University of Oxford in Great Britain. That group used radio telescopes to follow up as fast as possible. They were just in time to catch the action.

By the time it was done, the international team had data from satellites and ground-based telescopes that gathered X-ray, radio and optical signals, providing a stunning “multi-wavelength” portrait of this event.

It helped that the galaxy in question is closer to Earth than those studied previously in hopes of tracking a jet emerging after the destruction of a star. This galaxy is about 300 million light years away, while the others were at least three times farther away. One light year is 5.88 trillion miles.

The first step for the international team was to rule out the possibility that the light was from a pre-existing expansive swirling mass called an “accretion disk” that forms when a black hole is sucking in matter from space. That helped to confirm that the sudden increase of light from the galaxy was due to a newly trapped star.

“The destruction of a star by a black hole is beautifully complicated, and far from understood,” van Velzen said. “From our observations, we learn the streams of stellar debris can organize and make a jet rather quickly, which is valuable input for constructing a complete theory of these events.”

Van Velzen last year completed his doctoral dissertation at Radboud University in the Netherlands, where he studied jets from supermassive black holes. In the last line of the dissertation, he expressed his hope to discover these events within four years. It turned out to take only a few months after the ceremony for his dissertation defense.

Van Velzen and his team were not the only ones to hunt for radio signals from this particular unlucky star. A group at Harvard observed the same source with radio telescopes in New Mexico and announced its results online. Both teams presented results at a workshop in Jerusalem in early November. It was the first time the two competing teams had met face to face.

“The meeting was an intense, yet very productive exchange of ideas about this source,” van Velzen said. “We still get along very well; I actually went for a long hike near the Dead Sea with the leader of the competing group.”

Story Source:

The above post is reprinted from materials provided by Johns Hopkins University. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.

Journal Reference:

  1. S. van Velzen, G. E. Anderson, N. C. Stone, M. Fraser, T. Wevers, B. D. Metzger, P. G. Jonker, A. J. van der Horst, T. D. Staley, A. J. Mendez, J. C. A. Miller-Jones, S. T. Hodgkin, H. C. Campbell, R. P. Fender. A radio jet from the optical and X-ray bright stellar tidal disruption flare ASASSN-14li. Science, 2015; DOI: 10.1126/science.aad1182

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Comet fragments best explanation of mysterious dimming star

November 25, 2015
Iowa State University
Astronomers have responded to the buzz about a mysterious dimming star by studying data from NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope. They conclude the dimming was probably caused by a family of comets passing in front of the star.

This illustration shows a star behind a shattered comet. Observations of the star KIC 8462852 by NASA’s Kepler and Spitzer space telescopes suggest that its unusual light signals are likely from dusty comet fragments, which blocked the light of the star as they passed in front of it in 2011 and 2013. The comets are thought to be traveling around the star in a very long, eccentric orbit.
Credit: Illustration by NASA/JPL-Caltech

Was it a catastrophic collision in the star’s asteroid belt? A giant impact that disrupted a nearby planet? A dusty cloud of rock and debris? A family of comets breaking apart? Or was it alien megastructures built to harvest the star’s energy?

Just what caused the mysterious dimming of star KIC 8462852?

Massimo Marengo, an Iowa State University associate professor of physics and astronomy, wondered when he saw all the buzz about the mysterious star found by citizen scientists on the Planet Hunters website.

Those citizen scientists were highlighting measurements of star brightness recorded by NASA’s Kepler spacecraft. Tiny dips in a star’s brightness can indicate a planet is passing in front of the star. That’s how Kepler astronomers — and citizen scientists using the internet to help analyze the light curves of stars — are looking for planets.

But this star had deep dips in brightness — up to 22 percent. The star’s brightness also changed irregularly, sometimes for days and even months at a time. A search of the 150,000-plus stars in Kepler’s database found nothing like this.

So Marengo and two other astronomers decided to take a close look at the star using data taken with the Infrared Array Camera of NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope. They report their findings in a paper recently published online by The Astrophysical Journal Letters.

Their conclusion?

“The scenario in which the dimming in the KIC 8462852 light curve were caused by the destruction of a family of comets remains the preferred explanation …,” wrote the three — Marengo; Alan Hulsebus, an Iowa State doctoral student; and Sarah Willis, a former Iowa State graduate student now with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Lincoln Laboratory.

Questions about the star were launched last month when a research team led by Tabetha Boyajian of Yale University reported on the star in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. The astronomers reported how citizen scientists tagged the star’s deep and irregular dips in brightness as “bizarre” and “interesting.”

Boyajian and the other researchers looked at the data and investigated several possible causes. They wrote the “most promising theory” was a barrage of crumbling comets passing in front of the star.

In a subsequent paper submitted to The Astrophysical Journal, Jason Wright and colleagues at Penn State University speculated about other causes, including alien megastructures built to harvest energy while orbiting the star.

When the Iowa State astronomers studied the star with Spitzer infrared data from January 2015 — two years after the Kepler measurements — Marengo said they didn’t see much. If there had been some kind of catastrophe near the star, he said there would be a lot of dust and debris. And that would show up as extra infrared emissions.

Marengo said the study looked at two different infrared wavelengths: the shorter was consistent with a typical star and the longer showed some infrared emissions, but not enough to reach a detection threshold. The astronomers concluded there were no excess infrared emissions and therefore no sign of an asteroid belt collision, a giant impact on a planet or a dusty cloud of rock and debris.

So Marengo and his colleagues say the destruction of a family of comets near the star is the most likely explanation for the mysterious dimming. The comet fragments coming in rapidly at a steep, elliptical orbit could create a big debris cloud that could dim the star. Then the cloud would move off, restoring the star’s brightness and leaving no trace of excess infrared light.

And the alien megastructure theory?

“We didn’t look for that,” Marengo said. “We can’t really say it is, or is not. But what the star is doing is very strange. It’s interesting when you have phenomena like that — typically it means there’s some new physical explanation or a new concept to be discovered.”

Story Source:

The above post is reprinted from materials provided by Iowa State University. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.

Journal Reference:

  1. Massimo Marengo, Alan Hulsebus, Sarah Willis. KIC 8462852: THE INFRARED FLUX. The Astrophysical Journal, 2015; 814 (1): L15 DOI: 10.1088/2041-8205/814/1/L15

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Comet Catalina grows two tails, soars at dawn

November 23, 2015 by Bob King, Universe Today
Comet C/2013 US10 Catalina shows off a compact green coma and two tails in this photo taken this morning (Nov. 22, 2015) at dawn from Arizona. The green color comes from carbon compounds fluorescing in UV sunlight. Credit: Chris Schur

Amateur astronomer Chris Schur of Arizona had only five minutes to observe and photograph Comet Catalina this morning before twilight got the better of the night. In that brief time, he secured two beautiful images and made a quick observation through his 80mm refractor. He writes:

“Very difficult observation on this one. (I observed) it visually with the 35mm Panoptic ocular. It was a round, slightly condensed object with no sign of the twin tails that show up in the images. After five minutes, we lost it visually as it was 2° degrees up in bright twilight. Images show it for a longer time and a beautiful emerald green head with two tails forming a Y shaped fan.”

North is up and east to the left in these two photos of the comet made by Dr. D.T. Durig at 6:23 a.m. EST on Nov. 21st from Cordell-Lorenz Observatory in Sewanee, Tenn. He estimated the coma diameter at ~2 arc minutes with a tail at least …

Read more at:

Schur estimated the comet’s brightness at around magnitude +6. What appears to be the dust extends to the lower right (southeast) with a narrower ion tail pointing north. With its twin tails, I’m reminded of a soaring eagle or perhaps a turkey vulture rocking back and forth on its wings. While they scavenge for food, Catalina soaks up sunlight.

I also headed out before dawn for a look. After a failed attempt to spot the new visitor on Saturday, I headed down to the Lake Superior shoreline at 5:30 a.m. today and waited until the comet rose above the murk. Using 7×50 binoculars in a similar narrow observing window, I could barely detect it as a small, fuzzy spot 2.5° south of 4th magnitude Lambda Virginis at 5:50 a.m. 10 minutes after the start of astronomical twilight. The camera did better!


Read More Here

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Mars to get planetary ring set to rival Saturn, with moon Phobos set to break up from tidal stress

Updated Mon at 2:50pm

Mars is destined to get a spectacular new planetary ring system to rival that of Saturn, but don’t hold your breath because it will not be for another 30 million years or so, according to scientists.

The findings, published in the journal Nature Geoscience, are based on a new study to determine the fate destined to befall the diminutive Martian moon Phobos.

Over time Phobos is creeping inwards towards Mars at a couple of centimetres per year.

Dr Benjamin Black

“We found that Phobos is too weak to withstand tidal stresses from Mars and we expect it to break apart in a few tens of millions of years and form a ring around Mars,” the study’s lead author Dr Benjamin Black of the University of California said.

Only the giant planets of the outer solar system have rings at the moment.

Phobos — the larger of the two moons circling Mars — orbits just 6,000 kilometres above the surface of the red planet, closer than any other moon in the solar system.

“Over time Phobos is creeping inwards towards Mars at a couple of centimetres per year,” Dr Black said.

“We wanted to figure out whether Phobos crashes into Mars or breaks apart to form a ring, so we needed to know how strong it was — is it going to be able to stand the increasing tidal stresses that are going to be pulling this little moon apart, or will it eventually succumb to these forces?”

Dr Black and co-author Tushar Mittal found that Phobos will be pulled apart by the red planet’s gravitational tidal forces in about 20 to 40 million years’ time.

“We concluded that Phobos would break apart between 2.4 and about 1.1 Mars radii, somewhere between 8,500 kilometres down to around 4,000 kilometres or so,” Dr Black said.


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Discovery News

This Massive Exoplanet Is Being Born Right Now



The baby planet circles a very young, sun-like star located in a giant cloud of molecular gas 430 light-years from Earth in the constellation Taurus.

PHOTOS: The Most Horrific Alien Planets In Our Galaxy

Astronomers had previously noted a hefty gap in the disk of gas and dust surrounding the star, known as LkCa 15. They suspected the gravitational pull of an evolving planet had cleared out an orbital zone, similar to how some moons circling Saturn create gaps in its rings.

Now, a new series of observations adds key details of the planet-in-the-making, showing for the first time how it is feeding on hydrogen gas.

“This discovery has far-reaching implications for our understanding of the planet-forming process and of the properties of young planets,” Princeton University astrophysicist Zhaohuan Zhu wrote in a commentary in this week’s Nature.



Read More Here


For the first time, astronomers have directly observed a planet in the making.

Play Video
Earth is in what’s called the habitable zone. It’s far enough from the sun that it doesn’t get fried, and close enough that it gets the best of its warmth. We like to think we’re special for this, but it turns out we might be pretty run of the mill.

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All Sky Fireball Network

by Dr. Tony Phillips.

Every night, a network of NASA all-sky cameras scans the skies above the United States for meteoritic fireballs. Automated software maintained by NASA’s Meteoroid Environment Office calculates their orbits, velocity, penetration depth in Earth’s atmosphere and many other characteristics. Daily results are presented here on

On Nov. 17, 2015, the network reported 38 fireballs.
(23 sporadics, 9 Northern Taurids, 3 Leonids, 2 November I Draconids, 1 omicron Eridanid)

In this diagram of the inner solar system, all of the fireball orbits intersect at a single point–Earth. The orbits are color-coded by velocity, from slow (red) to fast (blue). [Larger image] [movies]


Near Earth Asteroids


Potentially Hazardous Asteroids (PHAs) are space rocks larger than approximately 100m that can come closer to Earth than 0.05 AU. None of the known PHAs is on a collision course with our planet, although astronomers are finding new ones all the time.

On November 18, 2015 there were 1634 potentially hazardous asteroids.

Recent & Upcoming Earth-asteroid encounters:

Miss Distance
2015 VR64
Nov 12
3 LD
14 m
2015 VV105
Nov 13
9 LD
10 m
2015 VU65
Nov 14
5.2 LD
23 m
2015 VY105
Nov 15
0.09 LD
7 m
2015 VN105
Nov 16
5.5 LD
13 m
2015 VD105
Nov 16
7.2 LD
52 m
2015 VC106
Nov 18
7 LD
24 m
2005 UL5
Nov 20
5.9 LD
390 m
2015 VE66
Nov 21
7.5 LD
64 m
2015 VO142
Nov 24
1 LD
7 m
2015 VH2
Nov 24
12.9 LD
14 m
2003 EB50
Nov 29
48.8 LD
2.2 km
2007 BG29
Dec 1
54.1 LD
1.1 km
2015 VZ145
Dec 8
9.2 LD
81 m
1998 WT24
Dec 11
10.9 LD
1.1 km
2011 YD29
Dec 24
9.7 LD
24 m
2003 SD220
Dec 24
28.4 LD
1.8 km
2008 CM
Dec 29
22.8 LD
1.5 km
2004 MQ1
Jan 2
55.4 LD
1.1 km
1999 JV6
Jan 6
12.6 LD
410 m

Notes: LD means “Lunar Distance.” 1 LD = 384,401 km, the distance between Earth and the Moon. 1 LD also equals 0.00256 AU. MAG is the visual magnitude of the asteroid on the date of closest approach.

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THIRD mystery ‘Death Star’ space ball to crash into Spanish village sparks terror among locals as mayor demands authorities explain what they are

  • A third strange black orb has fallen from space into a rural Spanish village 
  • Concerned locals and Villavieja’s mayor have demanded an explanation
  • The circular 50lb objects bear a strange resemblance to a Star Wars droid

A third mysterious black space object to fall from the sky into rural Spain has caused panic among locals.

The strange-looking black orb was found in the village of Villavieja in Murcia – becoming the latest instance of an increasingly bewildering phenomenon, the Olive Press reported.

It’s not yet known what the objects are, though theories range from UFOs to pieces of space debris.

The first instance of the strange phenomenon occurred one week ago, when Spanish goat farmers discovered the strange object, which bears a striking resemblance to the Star Wars torture device, the IT-O Interrogator, in Calasparra, Murcia.

The Civil Guard were called to investigate the black orb and the area was subsequently put under quarantine. Pictured is the second object to be found in the village earlier this week

The Civil Guard were called to investigate the black orb and the area was subsequently put under quarantine. Pictured is the second object to be found in the village earlier this week

The Civil Guard stated the object was an aerospace artefact and pointed to the possibility that it fell from a rocket or a satellite.

However, a few days later a second orb fell from the sky.

According to The Mirror, Jose Velez, the mayor of Calasparra, implored authorities to provide answers to worried residents.

‘Where are these objects coming from? Why are they falling here precisely?’

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Science News



5:54pm, November 9, 2015

OUT-OF-THIS-WORLD LANDSCAPE The latest data from the New Horizons mission has helped create topographical maps of Pluto (blue shows lower elevations, brown, higher elevations) that have revealed surprises such as these two possible ice volcanoes, the first of their kind in the outer solar system.


OXON HILL, Md. — At this point, the only thing unsurprising about Pluto is that it continues to offer up surprises.


A wide variety of landscapes, ongoing surface transformations and a family of wildly spinning moons are among the riddles reported by the New Horizons mission team November 9 at a meeting of the American Astronomical Society’s Division for Planetary Sciences.


“Pluto is like a graduate course in planetary science,” mission leader Alan Stern said at a news briefing. “It’s going to take the larger planetary science community many years to digest all this.”


The New Horizons spacecraft, which buzzed the dwarf planet on July 14, has so far sent back only about 20 percent of the data it acquired from the Pluto system. And every new nugget continues a story that’s pretty familiar by now: Pluto is a weird place.


Terrains both new and old sit side-by-side on Pluto’s surface. Some heavily cratered regions are roughly 4 billion years old, about as old as Pluto itself. Others, like the now famous heart, appear to have been laid down within the last 10 million years, judging by the total lack of craters.



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ALERT: WTF Space Object Fall to Earth on Friday the 13th


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