Anybody notice the exoplanet tally on our front page hop up to 402 this morning? That’s because the European Southern Observatory (ESO) revealed a stunning 32 (count em!) new exoplanets identified this morning at their conference at Porto, Portugal. The discoveries were thanks to HARPS, the High Accuracy Radial Velocity Planet Searcher, a sensitive spectrograph attached to the 3.6 meter telescope at La Silla. First installed in 2003, HARPS has thus far discovered 75 of the 400+ worlds now known, or nearly 25%! today’s haul represents the largest single day release. Any special firsts? Well, the grab bag of exo-worlds substantially increases the pool of “super-earths”, as well as three planets found orbiting metal deficient stars, something that may be cause for tweaking planetary formation theory a bit. HARPS is capable of measuring radial shifts as small as 2 miles per hour, an impressive feat. The gauntlet has now been thrown; will the Kepler space telescope rise to the challenge as it stares into Cygnus looking for exo-transits? Do we sense a “exoplanet-war” brewing on mountain tops and chat boards across the world? Stay tuned!
A Gamma-ray burst from the primordial universe sent astronomers reeling earlier this year with the most distant sighting yet. The burst was picked up by NASA’s Swift spacecraft on April 23, 2009 at 3:55 EDT. E-mails and instant messages flew to observatories around the globe as astronomers raced to pin-point the fading afterglow. Dubbed GRB 090423, (get the year/month/day thing?) This burst measures in at a redshift of 8.2, or a distance of 13.035 billion light years. This hails from a time when the universe was a tender young age of only 630 years old, young, compared to our circa 14 billion year current age. The old record was a red shift of 6.7 set in September 2008. the current “holy grail” in cosmology is to break the “redshift 10″ barrier, which may well happen in the coming year. A gamma-ray burst occurs when a super massive star collapses into a black hole, briefly creating a “hyper-nova” in the process. Such events are the most luminous in the universe and are thought to have been common amoung first generation stars. Backup observations were provided by Italy’s Galileo national telescope in the Canary Islands and the ESO’s Very Large Telescope in Chile.
Slender New crescent Moons are always a fun and interesting challenge to spot…but this week’s crescent Moon is special. For the astronomy challenge of the week, I give you a Ramadan Moon. The Muslim calendar is one of several that are lunar based, meaning that it follows a cycle of complete phases of the Moon through one synodic month, which is 29 days 12 hours 44 minutes and 3 seconds long, respectively. This means that any given lunar calendar falls about 10-12 days per year out of sync with the Gregorian solar based one. Ramadan, (“or Ramazan,” as its known in Turkey) begins at sunset with the sighting of the Hilal or crescent New Moon and is the ninth month of the Islamic calendar. [Read more...]
The astronomical event of the year is about to take center stage this Wednesday. A total eclipse of the Sun, the longest possible for a VERY long time! Those lucky enough to have secured a ticket or live along the Pacific/Southeast Asia corridor will see an eclipse of a duration of up to 6 minutes and 39 seconds, near the maximum 7 minutes and 31 seconds possible. This is a consequence of the Earth passing aphelion a few weeks ago (read: a visually small Sun) and the a large New Moon very near perihelion (remember the year’s smallest Full Moon a few weeks back?) [Read more...]