Are they stars? Are they lost planets? Brown dwarfs, the galaxy's dark, wandering orbs, are some of space's most perplexing features. They're larger than Jupiter but smaller than stars, glow on their own and, well, they're just really strange. A new analysis seems to explain at least a few of their mysteries.
Tagged With astronomy
Mildly encouraging news for Earthlings hoping to escape the scorched ruins of our own planet: A team of astronomers has found evidence for four Earth-sized (ish) worlds orbiting tau Ceti, a Sun-like star located just 12 light years away. Two of these planets, the researchers say, might barely be on the edge of the habitable zone, that not-too-hot, not-too-cold region that can potentially support liquid water and even life.
For billions of years, the Solar System's asteroids have been involved in an endless game of bumper cars, smashing into each other and splintering into smaller bits. But get this — astronomers have just detected a clump of asteroids that has managed, quite miraculously, to stay intact since they first formed some four billion years ago. The discovery is revealing new insights into what our Solar System looked like during its earliest phase.
On August 21, millions of Earthlings will gather to watch as a total solar eclipse sweeps across the centerline of the United States over the course of 90 minutes. For many, it will be once-in-a-life-time spectacle. Unfortunately, it won't be visible in Australia. But if you had a spacecraft on hand, you wouldn't need to wait decades for the next total solar eclipse to arrive at a town near you — you could simply jet off to Mars, Jupiter, Saturn or even Pluto. That's because there's a veritable zoo of solar eclipses occurring all across our solar system, all the time.
Humans hoping to launch themselves to another planet or even into the Sun are sadly out of luck — for now. But in a few billion years, when the Sun becomes a red giant and destroys our terrestrial oceans, future folk will hypothetically be able to make their homes elsewhere. Saturn and Jupiter's icy moons — Enceladus and Europa, respectively — have topped the list for future Earthling getaways. But new research suggests that these worlds might not be so habitable, even after their icy surfaces melt.
Saturn's moon Titan is a world of contrast; both eerily familiar and strikingly alien. Its calm seas and enormous sand dunes might remind you of Earth, until you learn that what's flowing across Titan's surface is not water, but liquid hydrocarbons. Titan's nitrogen-rich atmosphere seems to have some of the ingredients for biology, but any life forms evolved to thrive at temperatures of -178°C would be practically unrecognisable.
Thanks largely to NASA's Kepler space telescope, astronomers have found thousands of exoplanets lurking outside our solar system. Finding what creeps around those planets, however, has proven itself to be incredibly challenging. While scientists have had a few close calls with exomoons over the years, so far, no discovery's been legit. But a group of astronomers at Columbia University now think they have found an exomoon for real, roughly 4000 lightyears away.
Any Carl Sagan fan knows you're made of star stuff. Protons don't decay into any other particles (as far as we can tell), so you can reliably assume that most bits of you have been around since a second after the Big Bang. But if you're thinking a little more locally, you might wonder whether the Milky Way formed in its entirety before little ol' you were made.
A flash of visible light recently appeared in the sky that, depending on your location, could have been visible with binoculars. It wasn't a plane or a star: it was a gamma ray burst, one of the most violent kinds of explosions in the universe, from a source 9 billion light years away, possibly a black hole. And you're afraid of explosions here on Earth? That's cute.
Most people (wrongly) assume the moon is barren and boring. Sure, our satellite might be a little clingy, but it also has moonquakes, orange soil, and could be hiding abundant water resources. New research from satellite data offers more evidence that the Moon does indeed have water trapped in its mantle, which could be huge for companies looking to mine the Moon for resources. Still no word about where the cheese is, though.
It's easy to feel small and insignificant in the grandiose scope of the universe, because we are. At the same time, as Carl Sagan once reminded us, we're made of the same "star stuff" as the cosmos. All too often, we forget how random, ridiculous, and resplendent it is to part of the stellar sorority of the universe. That's why art, specifically movies like Eliza McNitt's Fistful of Stars, is important — it reacquaints us with humanity's small and stupid and somehow very special place in the cosmos.
In about a year and a half from now, the New Horizons Spacecraft will whiz past a distant Kuiper Belt object named 2014 MU69. This rocky relic of the ancient Solar System — which is located about 6.4 billion kilometres away — just passed in front of a distant star, resulting in one of the more extraordinary eclipses ever captured by scientists.
Earlier this year, Earthlings rejoiced when scientists announced the discovery of three rocky exoplanets in the habitable zone of TRAPPIST-1, an "ultracool dwarf" star located just 39 light years away. Soon after, astronomers brought us back down Earth, pointing out that it might be hard for life to survive on a world in such a tight orbit around such a dim star. But the debate has now taken yet another delicious twist, this time, in favour of aliens.
Mars' two moons, Phobos and Deimos, are not so good. They are quite small and abundantly unremarkable. In fact, Mars' bigger moon, Phobos, is slowly crumbling apart due to stress, which is perhaps its only relatable quality. So how did Mars — a nice, round planet — give rise to such garbage moons? The answer may lie in its turbulent youth, when it was possibly pelted with a large asteroid.
Astronomers at the Arecibo Observatory have picked up some strange signals coming from Ross 128, a red dwarf star located 11 light-years from Earth. Naturally, the inability of scientists to immediately explain the anomalous signals has led to rampant speculation that aliens must somehow be involved.
Pluto's moon Charon is the best sidekick a dwarf planet could hope for: Unwavering in its loyalty, content to be a minor character in somebody else's narrative. But two years after the New Horizons flyby, the largest of Pluto's five moons is finally getting some well-deserved time in the spotlight. New research suggests that Charon's storied history includes tectonic activity, cryovolcanism and, perhaps, a globe-spanning ocean.
Video: Pluto is the unquestionably the most goth (dwarf) planet in the solar system. Its cold, icy heart and underworld-themed moons are absolutely spooktacular, and yet none of us will ever get to see them in person. Thankfully, new video from NASA gives us an up close and personal tour of our favourite (former) planet. It's almost as metal as the real deal.
Microscopic tardigrades, also known as "water bears", are the toughest animals on the planet, capable of withstanding intense radiation, extreme temperatures, and even the vacuum of space. In a fascinating new study, researchers have shown that tardigrades are poised to survive literally anything that nature throws at them — and that of the animals alive today, they will be the last ones standing before the Sun annihilates the Earth billions of years from now.