January 18, 2018

20.06.10: The Low Down on WASP-12b.

A bizarre exo-world just got stranger in the past month, but not in the way many news outlets would have you believe. WASP-12b is destined for a short life, one that we many have been fortunate enough to catch it in the middle of. The story starts in 2008, with the transiting exoplanet’s discovery by the UKs Wide Area Search for Planets (WASP) array. The primary star, WASP-12, is a yellow dwarf located 600 light years distant in the constellation Auriga. Even at that time, it was known that WASP-12b was strange; it whizzed around its star in only 26 hours and had to be sizzling. Now, follow-up measurements with the Hubble Space Telescope and its newly installed Cosmic Origins Spectrograph have indeed revealed a world in peril; at 2800° degrees Fahrenheit, WASP-12b is bloated up to three times the radius of Jupiter, although it only contains 1.4 times its mass. COS was able to identify manganese, tin, and aluminum in the spectra of the atmosphere as the planet transited its host star, using its sensitivity in the ultraviolet to pin down key measurements such as its diameter. This would put the Roche Limit of the planet well beyond what its own gravity can retain. WASP-12b is more than likely feeding material to its stellar host, an act it can’t maintain forever. Calculations show that WASP-12b will cease to exist in about 10 million years or so.  It does, however, give astronomers an opportunity to gather a spectrum for study of a hot Jupiter in action… The WASP-12b story also fueled an avalanche of bad science stories, along the lines of “Cannibal Star 600 Million Light Years Distant Consumes Planet!” as if such a star bent on evil were inbound or headed our way. Never let the facts get in the way of a good story, guys… you keep us science news bloggers employed!

12.06.10: Refurbished Hubble Catches Interstellar Speedster.

New instruments installed aboard the Hubble Space Telescope on the final repair mission are now starting to really show their stuff. Recently, astronomers revealed a new find; a massive star speeding away from the Tarantula Nebula. Located 170,000 light years distant in the Large Magellanic Cloud, this nebula is also sometimes referred to as 30 Doradus or NGC 2070. At the heart of the nebula is a star forming region known as R136. The star in question is speeding outward at an amazing 250,000 mph, or almost 70 miles a second. This would easily span the Earth-Moon distance in one hour! Already, the star has covered about 375 light years in its young estimated 1 to 2 million year long life. What accelerates a star to such a dizzying velocity? One event capable is a nearby supernova explosion. This is unlikely, because any of the siblings within 30 Dor would have been equally young. Another, more likely scenario is that this star had several early encounters with neighboring stars and promptly got flung out of the nebula. 30 Dor boasts several stars in the massive 100+ solar mass category, and is home to some of the largest stars known in the nearby universe.  First indentified in 2006 during a survey conducted at the Siding Spring Observatory in Australia, astronomers got a new view of the stellar runaway when they used it as a calibration target for the newly installed Cosmic Origins Spectrograph. They found a star perhaps 90 times the mass of our Sun unleashing furious stellar winds and carving an enormous bubble in space. COS conducts its observations primarily in the ultraviolet. Observations also confirmed that this star is one single massive entity, and not a close spectroscopic binary. Massive stars such as this are destined for a short life, ending its fusion role as a supernova and eventually leaving a remnant black hole.

Space Telescopes, Part I: Optical.

This weeks’ expose will kick off our four part series on orbiting space telescopes. For starters, we’ll begin with the most familiar; the optical wavelength. True, we as humans are biased towards this narrow band of the spectrum; we love to see pretty pictures that we can relate to.  But beyond this, telescopes that operate in the visual wavelengths have no less than revolutionized astronomy, as well as laid promise for perhaps giving us images of exo-Earths in our lifetimes. What follows is a rapid fire list of what was, is, and what to look for up and coming in the realm of optical astronomy in space:

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20.04.10: Hubble Smashes KBO record.

The Hubble Space Telescope has shattered yet another record; the smallest Kuiper Belt Object yet recorded. But the discovery came not from the telescope’s main optical array, but an unlikely source; its Fine Guidance Sensors. These star trackers point the HST and sample target stars 40 times a second. Using an innovative technique, a team led by Hike Schlichting sifted through 4.5 years of data to find a single 0.3 second in duration event. This is estimated to be a tiny KBO inclined about 14° degrees to the solar ecliptic. At an estimated 975 meters across and 6.8 billion kilometers distant, this object stands as the tiniest distant object ever detected. The Kuiper belt is a ring of icy material extending just beyond the orbit of Neptune out to about 55 astronomical units. At an estimated +35 magnitude in brightness, this icy body is far too small for even Hubble to see. The object was inferred indirectly by what’s known as a stellar occultation. This discovery also highlights the utility of pouring over the backlog of astronomical data generated by such platforms as Hubble. What other discoveries lay hidden it that thar’ data?

Review: Hubble 3D IMAX.

After much anticipation, we finally had a chance to make the pilgrimage to the Kennedy Space Center earlier this week to catch the IMAX film Hubble: 3D! All we’ve got to say is…wow! This is definitely one not to miss. Hubble 3D takes you from the launch pad to on-orbit repairs following the crew of STS-125 as they train for a mission that almost never was. But the film is more than simply a tale of a telescope; Hubble 3D is no less than a testament to mans quest for understanding in the universe. Some of the 3-Dimensional fly-arounds were particularly captivating; I felt as if I could reach out and touch some of those proto-solar cocoons in M42 as we dived in!

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29.9.9:Hubble Spies a Galactic Jet.

The formerly ailing Hubble Space Telescope spied something remarkable earlier this year; a rapidly expanding jet around the massive galaxy M87. Dubbed HST-1, this blob of matter is the first object with a Hubble designation, and has been tracked for over seven years. Brighter than the galaxies’ own core, the gas knot is 214 light years from the core and receding. M87 is visible in the constellation Virgo with a backyard telescope, and is part of the massive Virgo cluster of galaxies about 54 million light years away. The growth of the brightness of the jet expanded by 90 fold over the past decade, giving astronomers the opportunity to examine an active galactic nucleus in action. As the refurbished Hubble begins to strut its stuff, doubtless HST-1 will be an object of increased scrutiny!

Astro-Event of the Week: 05.11.09: See STS-125 dock with Hubble!

First; the good news. This week’s potential launch of Atlantis on STS-125 for it’s much delayed servicing mission (the 4th and final) to the Hubble Space Telescope (HST) will provide spectacular views, both of the initial launch along the Space Coast of Florida and the dawn and dusk skies as it chases the orbiting observatory. Now for the bad; the current orbit of Hubble is positioned such that most of the northern hemisphere won’t see the action! The HST is inclined at a 28.5 degree orbit, far different than the normal 51.6 degree orbit the shuttle orbiters must attain to dock with the ISS.

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July 08 News & Notes.

Attack of the Plutoids? On June 11th, the International Astronomical Union (IAU) handed down yet another definition for trans-Neptunian objects; a new class of planetary bodies, now classified as Plutoids, have sprung into existence.

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