X-ray Light Source CX330 Detected in Bulge of Milky Way

Most isolated young star discovered launching jets of material into surrounding gas and dust

An unusual celestial object called CX330 was first detected as a source of X-ray light in 2009. It has been launching “jets” of material into the gas and dust around it. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech
An unusual celestial object called CX330 was first detected as a source of X-ray light in 2009. It has been launching “jets” of material into the gas and dust around it.
Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Space news (astrophysics: massive, young stars in star-forming regions; unusual, isolated young star baffles astronomers) – approximately 27,000 light-years from Earth in an isolated region of the bulge of the Milky Way – 

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NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory first detected unusual stellar object CX330. Credits: NASA/Chandra

Astronomers surveying the universe looking for unusual celestial objects to study to add to human knowledge and understanding have found something they haven’t seen before. Unusual celestial object CX 330 was first noticed in data obtained during a survey of the bulge of the Milky Way in 2009 by NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory as a source of X-ray light. Additional observations of the source showed it also emitted light in optical wavelengths, but with so few clues to go on, astronomers had no idea what they were looking at. 

During more recent observations of CX 330 during August of 2015, astronomers discovered it had recently been active, launching jets of material into gas and dust surrounding it. During a period from 2007 to 2010, it had increased in brightness by hundreds of times, which made scientists curious to examine previous data obtained from the same region of the bulge. 

Using the unique orbit of NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope and a depth-perceiving trick called parallax, astronomers have determined the distance to an invisible Milky Way object called OGLE-2005-SMC-001. This artist's concept illustrates how this trick works: different views from both Spitzer and telescopes on Earth are combined to give depth perception. Credits: NASA/Spitzer
Using the unique orbit of NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope and a depth-perceiving trick called parallax, astronomers have determined the distance to an invisible Milky Way object called OGLE-2005-SMC-001. This artist’s concept illustrates how this trick works: different views from both Spitzer and telescopes on Earth are combined to give depth perception. Credits: NASA/Spitzer

Looking at data obtained by NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) in 2010, they realized the surrounding gas and dust was heated to the point of ionization.  Comparing this data to observations taken with NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope in 2007, astronomers determined they were looking at a young star in an outburst phase, forming in an isolated region of the cosmos.

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Chris Britta Credits: Texas Tech University

“We tried various interpretations for it, and the only one that makes sense is that this rapidly growing young star is forming in the middle of nowhere,” said Chris Britta postdoctoral researcher at Texas Tech University in Lubbock, and lead author of a study on CX330 recently published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

By combining this data with observations taken by a variety of both ground and space-based telescopes they were able to get an even clearer picture of CX330. An object very similar to FU Orionis, but likely more massive, compact, and hotter, and lying in a less populated region of space. Launched faster jets of outflow that heated a surrounding disk of gas and dust to the point of ionization, and increased the flow of material falling onto the star.

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Tom Maccarone Credits: Texas Tech University

“The disk has probably heated to the point where the gas in the disk has become ionized, leading to a rapid increase in how fast the material falls onto the star,” said Thomas Maccarone, study co-author and associate professor at Texas Tech.

The fact CX 330 lies in an isolated region of space, unlike the previous nine examples of this type of star observed during the human journey to the beginning of space and time, tweaks the interest of astronomers. The other nine examples all lie in star-forming regions of the Milky Way galaxy with ample material for new stars to form from, but the closest star-forming region to this young star is over 1,000 light-years away.

Joel Green Credits: NASA/Space Telescope Science Institute
Joel Green Credits: NASA/Space Telescope Science Institute

“CX330 is both more intense and more isolated than any of these young outbursting objects that we’ve ever seen,” said Joel Green, study co-author and researcher at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore. “This could be the tip of the iceberg — these objects may be everywhere.”

We really know nothing about CX 330. More observations are required to determine more. It’s possible all young stars go through a similar outburst period as observed in the case of CX 330. The periods are just too brief in cosmological time for astronomers to observe with current technology. The real clue’s the isolation of this example as compared to previous models. 

How did CX 330 become so isolated? One idea often floated is the possibility it formed in a star-forming region, before being ejected to a more isolated region of space. This seems unlikely considering astronomers believe this young star’s only about a million years old. Even if this age’s wrong, this star’s still consuming its surrounding disk of dust and gas and must have formed near its current location. It just couldn’t have traveled the required distance from a star-forming region to its current location, without completely stripping away its surrounding disk of gas and dust. 

Astronomers are learning more about the formation of stars studying CX 330, that’s for sure. Using two competing ideas, called “hierarchical” and “competitive” models, scientists search for answers to unanswered questions concerning CX 330. At this point, they favor the chaotic and turbulent environment of the “hierarchical” model, as a better fit for the theoretical formation of a lone star.

What’s next?

It’s still possible material exists nearby CX 330, such as intermediate to low-mass stars, that astronomers haven’t observed, yet.  When last viewed in August 2015, this young star was still in an outburst phase. During future observations planned with new telescopes in different wavelengths, we could get a better picture of events surrounding this unusual celestial object. Stay tuned to this channel for more information.

For people wondering if planets could form around this young star? Some astronomers are hoping planets will form from the disk of CX 330, they’ll be able to examine closer for the chemical signature of the scars left by the outbursts observed. Unfortunately, at the rate this star’s consuming its surrounding disk of gas and dust, having enough left over for the formation of planets seems unlikely. 

“You said you like it hot, right!” If CX 330’s a really massive star, which seems likely. It’s short, violent lifespan would be a truly hot time for any planet and inhabitants. 

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The Helix Nebula: The Eye of God

Expelled outer layers of white dwarf glowing brightly in the infrared 

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Space news (astrophysics: planetary nebula; Helix Nebula) – 650 light-years from Earth toward the constellation Aquarius – 

This composite image shows a visually stunning planetary nebula labeled “The Eye of God” more serious observers call the Helix Nebula (NGC 7293). Planetary nebula are the remains of a dying star much like our own Sol, only 5 billion years in the future. At this time the Sun will run out of hydrogen to use as its fuel source for the fusion process and will start using helium to create heavier carbon, nitrogen, and oxygen. Once it runs out of helium to fuse, it will die and expel its outer gas layers, leaving a tiny, hot core called a white dwarf. An Earth-sized core so dense a teaspoon full would weigh more than a few black rhinos. 

First discovered in the 18th century, planetary nebula like the Helix Nebula emit across a similar, broad spectrum from ultraviolet to infrared. The image shown at the top uses a combination of ultraviolet radiation collected by NASA’s Galaxy Evolution Explorer ((GALEX in blue(0.15 to 2.3 microns)) and infrared light detected by their Spitzer Space Telescope ((red(8 to 24 microns) and green(3.6 to 4.5 microns)) and Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer ((WISE in red(3.4 to 4.5 microns)) showing the subtle differences observed in the different wavelengths of light emitted by ghostly celestial objects like NGC 7293 and NGC 6369 (The Little Ghost). 

Dust makes this cosmic eye look red. This eerie Spitzer Space Telescope image shows infrared radiation from the well-studied Helix Nebula (NGC 7293), which is a mere 700 light-years away in the constellation Aquarius. The two light-year diameter shroud of dust and gas around a central white dwarf has long been considered an excellent example of a planetary nebula, representing the final stages in the evolution of a sun-like star. Spitzer data show the nebula's central star is itself immersed in a surprisingly bright infrared glow. Models suggest the glow is produced by a dust debris disk. Even though the nebular material was ejected from the star many thousands of years ago, the close-in dust could be generated by collisions in a reservoir of objects analogous to our own solar system's Kuiper Belt or cometary Oort cloud. Formed in the distant planetary system, the comet-like bodies have otherwise survived even the dramatic late stages of the star's evolution. Image credit: NASA, JPL-Caltech, Kate Su (Steward Obs, U. Arizona) et al.
Dust makes this cosmic eye look red. This eerie Spitzer Space Telescope image shows infrared radiation from the well-studied Helix Nebula (NGC 7293), which is a mere 700 light-years away in the constellation Aquarius. The two light-year diameter shroud of dust and gas around a central white dwarf has long been considered an excellent example of a planetary nebula, representing the final stages in the evolution of a sun-like star.
Spitzer data show the nebula’s central star is itself immersed in a surprisingly bright infrared glow. Models suggest the glow is produced by a dust debris disk. Even though the nebular material was ejected from the star many thousands of years ago, the close-in dust could be generated by collisions in a reservoir of objects analogous to our own solar system’s Kuiper Belt or cometary Oort cloud. Formed in the distant planetary system, the comet-like bodies have otherwise survived even the dramatic late stages of the star’s evolution.
Image credit: NASA, JPL-Caltech, Kate Su (Steward Obs, U. Arizona) et al.

Astronomers have studied planetary nebulae like the Helix Nebula and M2-9 (Wings of a Butterfly Nebula) as much as any recorded during the human journey to the beginning of space and time. The remnant of a rapidly evolving star near the end of its lifespan, the white dwarf star is a tiny, barely perceptible point of light at the center of the nebula in this composite image. Thousands of planetary nebula have been detected within a distance of about 100 million light-years of Earth and astronomers estimate about 10,000 exist in the Milky Way. Making planetary nebula a relatively common celestial mystery observed as we trace our roots to their beginning. 

Watch this YouTube video on the Helix Nebula.

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This collage of planetary nebula images was put together by NASA technicians to express the beauty and wonder of planetary nebula. Credits: NASA

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Infrared Echoes Dance Around Cassiopeia A

Stretching over 300 light-years from the supernova remnant 

Credits: NASA/Spitzer
Credits: NASA/Spitzer

Space news (astrophysics: supernovae; Cassiopeia A remnant) – 11,000 light-years from Earth toward the northern constellation Cassiopeia the Queen – 

On the day in 1667 when a brilliant new star appeared in the sky in Cassiopeia the Queen, no written account is left to tell of the stellar event. The supernova remnant left over is called Cassiopeia A. It consists of a neutron star, with the first carbon atmosphere ever detected, and an expanding shell of material that was ejected from the star as it contracted under its own mass. The progenitor star of this supernova remnant was a supermassive star estimated to be between 15 to 20 times as massive as Sol. 

The composite image of the Cassiopeia A supernova remnant seen above was made using six processed images taken over a three year period by NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope. It shows the largest light echoes ever detected at over 300 light-years in length, which were created as light from the explosion passed through clumps of dust surrounding the supernova remnant. This light illuminated and heated surrounding dust clumps, making them briefly glow in infrared, like a series of colored lights lighting up one after the other. This resulted in an optical illusion in which the dust appears to be traveling away from the remnant at the speed of light. This apparent motion is represented in this image by different dust colors, with dust features unchanged over time appearing gray, and changes in surrounding dust over time represented by blue or orange colors.  

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Cassiopeia A supernova remnant. Credits? NASA/Hubble/Spitzer

Supernova remnant Cassiopeia A is the brightest radio emission source in the night sky above the frequency of 1 Gigahertz. It’s expanding shell of material reaches speeds above 5,000 km/s and temperatures as high as 50 million degrees Fahrenheit. First detected by Martin Ryle and Francis Graham-Smith in 1948, since this time it has become one of the most studied supernova remnants during the human journey to the beginning of space and time. 

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For the first time, a multiwavelength three-dimensional reconstruction of a supernova remnant has been created in this stunning image of Cassiopeia A. Credits: NASA/Spitzer/Chandra/Kitt Peak

The startling false-color image above shows the many brilliant, stunning faces of the supernova remnant Cassiopeia A. Composed of images collected by three of the greatest space observatories in history, in three different wavebands of light. This view highlights the beauty hidden within one of the most violent events ever detected close by in the Milky Way. 

NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope infrared images used to create this stunning picture show warm dust in the outer shell of the supernova remnant Cassiopeia A highlighted in red. Hubble Space Telescope images added reveal delicate filaments of hot gas around 10,000 degrees Kelvin (18,000 degrees Fahrenheit) in yellow, while x-ray data collected by NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory is shown in green and blue. Look a little closer and deeper at the image and one sees hints of older infrared echoes from after the supernova hundreds of years ago.  

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Superstar Binaries Like Eta Carinae More Common Than First Thought

Astronomers using NASA’s Spitzer and Hubble space telescopes discovered similar superstar binaries in four nearby galaxies

Eta Carinae's great eruption in the 1840s created the billowing Homunculus Nebula, imaged here by Hubble, and transformed the binary into a unique object in our galaxy. Astronomers cannot yet explain what caused this eruption. The discovery of likely Eta Carinae twins in other galaxies will help scientists better understand this brief phase in the life of a massive star. Credits: NASA, ESA, and the Hubble SM4 ERO Team
Eta Carinae’s great eruption in the 1840s created the billowing Homunculus Nebula, imaged here by Hubble, and transformed the binary into a unique object in our galaxy. Astronomers cannot yet explain what caused this eruption. The discovery of likely Eta Carinae twins in other galaxies will help scientists better understand this brief phase in the life of a massive star.
Credits: NASA, ESA, and the Hubble SM4 ERO Team

Space news (February 15, 2016) – 7,500 light-years away in the southern constellation of Carina

Astronomers combing through data provided by the Hubble and Spitzer space telescopes looking for superstar binaries like Eta Carinae think they have finally found a few additional instances in nearby galaxies. 

The signature balloon-shaped clouds of gas blown from a pair of massive stars called Eta Carinae have tantalized astronomers for decades. Eta Carinae has a volatile temperament, prone to violent outbursts over the past 200 years. Observations by the newly repaired Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph (STIS) aboard NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope reveal some of the chemical elements that were ejected in the eruption seen in the middle of the 19th century. Image credit: NASA/ESA
The signature balloon-shaped clouds of gas blown from a pair of massive stars called Eta Carinae have tantalized astronomers for decades. Eta Carinae has a volatile temperament, prone to violent outbursts over the past 200 years.
Observations by the newly repaired Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph (STIS) aboard NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope reveal some of the chemical elements that were ejected in the eruption seen in the middle of the 19th century.
Image credit: NASA/ESA

We knew others were out there,” said co-investigator Krzysztof Stanek, a professor of astronomy at Ohio State University in Columbus. “It was really a matter of figuring out what to look for and of being persistent.

Astrophysicists had previously conducted a survey of data on seven galaxies provided by the pair of space telescopes between 2012-2014. During this extensive study of the data, scientists found no superstar binaries similar to Eta Carinae. They determined they needed to devise a more sensitive way to identify possible candidates. 

Astronomers devised an optical and infrared fingerprint to detect and identify these five superstar binaries similar to Eta Carinae. With Spitzer we see a steady increase in brightness starting at around 3 microns and peaking between 8 and 24 microns,” explained Khan. “By comparing this emission to the dimming we see in Hubble’s optical images, we could determine how much dust was present and compare it to the amount we see around Eta Carinae.

During the follow-up survey conducted in 2015, astronomers discovered data indicating the existence of five superstar binaries similar to Eta Carinae in four nearby galaxies. 

The nearby spiral galaxy M83 is currently the only one known to host two potential Eta Carinae twins. This composite of images from the Hubble Space Telescope's Wide Field Camera 3 instrument shows a galaxy ablaze with newly formed stars. A high rate of star formation increases the chances of finding massive stars that have recently undergone an Eta Carinae-like outburst. Bottom: Insets zoom into Hubble data to show the locations of M83's Eta twins. Credits: NASA, ESA, the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA) and R. Khan (GSFC and ORAU)
The nearby spiral galaxy M83 is currently the only one known to host two potential Eta Carinae twins. This composite of images from the Hubble Space Telescope’s Wide Field Camera 3 instrument shows a galaxy ablaze with newly formed stars. A high rate of star formation increases the chances of finding massive stars that have recently undergone an Eta Carinae-like outburst. Bottom: Insets zoom into Hubble data to show the locations of M83’s Eta twins.
Credits: NASA, ESA, the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA) and R. Khan (GSFC and ORAU)

In nearby galaxy M83, just 15 million light-years away, astronomers discovered two superstar binaries similar to Eta Carinae. They also found one superstar binary each in NGC 6946, M101 and M51, located between 18-26 million light-years away.

Researchers found likely Eta twins in four galaxies by comparing the infrared and optical brightness of each candidate source. Infrared images from NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope revealed the presence of warm dust surrounding the stars. Comparing this information with the brightness of each source at optical and near-infrared wavelengths as measured by instruments on Hubble, the team was able to identify candidate Eta Carinae-like objects. Top: 3.6-micron images of candidate Eta twins from Spitzer's IRAC instrument. Bottom: 800-nanometer images of the same sources from various Hubble instruments. Credits: NASA, ESA, and R. Khan (GSFC and ORAU)
Researchers found likely Eta twins in four galaxies by comparing the infrared and optical brightness of each candidate source. Infrared images from NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope revealed the presence of warm dust surrounding the stars. Comparing this information with the brightness of each source at optical and near-infrared wavelengths as measured by instruments on Hubble, the team was able to identify candidate Eta Carinae-like objects. Top: 3.6-micron images of candidate Eta twins from Spitzer’s IRAC instrument. Bottom: 800-nanometer images of the same sources from various Hubble instruments.
Credits: NASA, ESA, and R. Khan (GSFC and ORAU)

An additional study indicates each of these five candidates has the same optical and infrared fingerprint as Eta Carinae. Astronomers think within each a high mass star is buried in five to ten solar masses of gas and dust, like Eta Carinae. 

More study’s needed

They plan additional study of these five candidate superstar binaries similar to Eta Carinae, to determine if they’re indeed what they were looking for. The launch of the James Webb Space Telescope, late in 2018, will enable additional and better study of these five possible superstar binaries. 

The James Webb Telescope’s Mid-infrared instrument (MIRI) has ten times the angular resolution of the Spitzer Space Telescope. It’s also most sensitive to the wavelengths needed to detect superstar binaries at their brightest. 

Combined with Webb’s larger primary mirror, MIRI will enable astronomers to better study these rare stellar laboratories and to find additional sources in this fascinating phase of stellar evolution,” said Sonneborn, NASA’s project scientist for Webb telescope operations. It will take Webb observations to confirm the Eta twins as true relatives of Eta Carinae.

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NASA WISE and Spitzer Telescopes Discover Titanic Galaxy Cluster

Astronomers say this monster was one of the biggest galaxy clusters of its time

The galaxy cluster called MOO J1142+1527 can be seen here as it existed when light left it 8.5 billion years ago. The red galaxies at the center of the image make up the heart of the galaxy cluster. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Gemini/CARMA
The galaxy cluster called MOO J1142+1527 can be seen here as it existed when light left it 8.5 billion years ago. The red galaxies at the center of the image make up the heart of the galaxy cluster.
Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Gemini/CARMA

Space news (November 07, 2015) – 8.5 billion light-years away in a remote part of the cosmos –

NASA astronomers conducting a survey of galaxy clusters using the Spitzer Space Telescope and Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) recently viewed one of the biggest galaxy clusters ever recorded. Called Massive Overdense Object (MOO) J1142+1527, this monster galaxy cluster is in a very distant part of the universe and existed around 4 billion years before the birth of Earth.

8.5 billion years have passed since the light seen in the image above reached us here on Earth. MOO J1142+1527 has grown bigger during this time as more galaxies were drawn into the cluster and become even more extreme as far as galaxy clusters go. Containing thousands of galaxies, each with hundreds of billions of individual suns, galaxy clusters like this are some of the biggest structures in the cosmos. 

It’s the combination of Spitzer and WISE that lets us go from a quarter billion objects down to the most massive galaxy clusters in the sky,” said Anthony Gonzalez of the University of Florida in Gainesville, lead author of a new study published in the Oct. 20 issue of the Astrophysical Journal Letters.

Based on our understanding of how galaxy clusters grow from the very beginning of our universe, this cluster should be one of the five most massive in existence at that time,” said co-author Peter Eisenhardt, the project scientist for WISE at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

Astronomers conducting this survey will now spend the next year sifting through more than 1,700 more galaxy clusters detected by the combined power of NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope and Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer looking for the largest galaxy clusters in the cosmos. Once they find the biggest galaxy clusters in the universe, they’ll use the data obtained to investigate their evolution and the extreme environments they’re found.

Once we find the most massive clusters, we can start to investigate how galaxies evolved in these extreme environments,” said Gonzalez.

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CIBER Observes Blue Light Spectrum of Cosmic Background Infrared Light Detected by Spitzer Space Telescope

Space scientists believe this indicates the universe between galaxies is brighter than first thought

Space news (November 26, 2014) In the dark space between galaxies – 

Using two CIBER (Cosmic Infrared Background Experiment) suborbital sounding rockets launched between 2010 and 2012, NASA space scientists recently tried to settle a question concerning the discovery of a greater amount of cosmic background infrared light in the universe than predicted by theory. NASA astronomers previously detected this excess background infrared light using the Spitzer Space Telescope.

“It is wonderfully exciting for such a small NASA rocket to make such a huge discovery,” said Mike Garcia, program scientist from NASA Headquarters. “Sounding rockets are an important element in our balanced toolbox of missions from small to large.”

Currently, theories suggest two possible scenarios: this infrared light originates from either stream of stars that have been flung into the depths of space during encounters between galaxies or from the first galaxies that formed in the universe around 13.8 billion years ago. 

Using suborbital rockets NASA space scientists took wide-field images of the cosmic infrared background at two infrared wavelengths, shorter than those detected originally by the Spitzer Space Telescope. 

Using this data they made a map of the fluctuations in the cosmic infrared background light by eliminating the light from bright stars, galaxies and local sources closer to our own Milky Way. By measuring the brightness of these fluctuations scientists can determine the total volume of cosmic infrared background light in the universe.  

NASA space scientists discovered a greater volume of infrared light than the galaxies alone can generate. Excess infrared light with a blue spectrum, which indicates it increases in brightness at shorter wavelengths. Scientists think this infrared light emanates from orphan stars flung out into the darkness during encounters between galaxies.      

“We think stars are being scattered out into space during galaxy collisions,” said Michael Zemcov, lead author of a new paper describing the results from the rocket project and an astronomer at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California. “While we have previously observed cases where stars are flung from galaxies in a tidal stream, our new measurement implies this process is widespread.”

“The light looks too bright and too blue to be coming from the first generation of galaxies,” said James Bock, principal investigator of the CIBER project from Caltech and JPL. “The simplest explanation, which best explains the measurements, is that many stars have been ripped from their galactic birthplace and that the stripped stars emit on average about as much light as the galaxies themselves.”

NASA space scientists will now design new experiments to determine whether orphan stars could be the source of the excess cosmic background infrared light detected. These stray stars should still be in the vicinity of their parent galaxy if they were flung out during galactic encounters. They’ll also begin measuring more of the infrared spectrum to try to determine how stars could be stripped from their parent galaxies. 

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Read about metal ions detected in an Oort Cloud comet

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NASA Telescopes Detecting Clear Skies and Steamy Water Vapor on Neptune-size Exoplanet

A Neptune-size planet with a clear atmosphere is shown crossing in front of its star in this artist's depiction. Such crossings, or transits, are observed by telescopes like NASA's Hubble and Spitzer to glean information about planets' atmospheres.
A Neptune-size planet with a clear atmosphere is shown crossing in front of its star in this artist’s depiction. Such crossings, or transits, are observed by telescopes like NASA’s Hubble and Spitzer to glean information about planets’ atmospheres Image Credit NASA

Is a sign smaller exoplanets could have similar or more hospitable environments

Space news (November 07, 2014) 120 light-years away in the constellation Cygnus –

NASA space scientists using the Hubble, Spitzer and Kepler space telescopes detected clear skies and steamy water vapor on exoplanet HAT-P-11b. This is the first detection of molecules on an exoplanet the size of Neptune or smaller. It’s also a sign smaller exoplanets have similar or more hospitable environments.  

Scientists were excited to discover clear skies on a relatively small planet, about the size of Neptune, using the combined power of NASA's Hubble, Spitzer and Kepler space telescopes. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Space scientists were excited to discover clear skies on a relatively small planet, about the size of Neptune, using the combined power of NASA’s Hubble, Spitzer, and Kepler space telescopes.
Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

How did space scientists detect clear skies and steamy vapor on a planet 120 light-years away in the Constellation Cygnus? Astronomers used the Hubble, Spitzer and Kepler space telescopes to observe HAT-P-11b as it passed in front of its parent star in relation to Earth. By analyzing the starlight passing through the atmosphere of the exoplanet, space scientists determined the specific molecules making it up. 

This scientific technique is called Transmission Spectroscopy and it was particularly effective in the case of HAT-P-11b because of this Neptune-size exoplanet (exo-Neptune), unlike previous ones detected, has no clouds in the atmosphere to block the starlight from coming through, which allowed for the detection of water vapor molecules.  

A plot of the transmission spectrum for exoplanet HAT-P-11b, with data from NASA's Kepler, Hubble and Spitzer observatories combined. The results show a robust detection of water absorption in the Hubble data. Transmission spectra of selected atmospheric models are plotted for comparison. Image Credit: NASA/ESA/STScI
A plot of the transmission spectrum for exoplanet HAT-P-11b, with data from NASA’s Kepler, Hubble and Spitzer space observatories combined. The results show a robust detection of water absorption in the Hubble data. Transmission spectra of selected atmospheric models are plotted for comparison.
Image Credit: NASA/ESA/STScI

“This discovery is a significant milepost on the road to eventually analyzing the atmospheric composition of smaller, rocky planets more like Earth,” said John Grunsfeld, assistant administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. “Such achievements are only possible today with the combined capabilities of these unique and powerful observatories.” 

“When astronomers go observing at night with telescopes, they say ‘clear skies’ to mean good luck,” said Jonathan Fraine of the University of Maryland, College Park, lead author of a new study appearing in Nature. “In this case, we found clear skies on a distant planet. That’s lucky for us because it means clouds didn’t block our view of water molecules.” 

“We think that exo-Neptunes may have diverse compositions, which reflect their formation histories,” said study co-author Heather Knutson of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. “Now with data like these, we can begin to piece together a narrative for the origin of these distant worlds.” 

“We are working our way down the line, from hot Jupiters to exo-Neptunes,” said Drake Deming, a co-author of the study also from the University of Maryland. “We want to expand our knowledge to a diverse range of exoplanets.” 

NASA space scientists will now use the Hubble, Spitzer and Kepler space telescopes to begin looking at more exoplanets the size of HAT-P-11b for clear skies and water vapor. They’ll also hope to use Transmission Spectroscopy to detect smaller exoplanets, more like our home planet, called super-Earths orbiting distant stars. Once the James Webb Space Telescope comes online in 2018, they’ll begin looking at any super-Earths detected for signs of water vapor and other molecules. 

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Look here for more on the Kepler Space Telescope. 

Go here for more information on NASA and the exoplanets discovered.

Read about the possibility of intelligent lifeforms existing in the universe

Read about the Chelyabinsk Meteorite

Read about ancient astronomers looking at Algol for signs of the gods