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Tag archives: astronomy

From Mars to the multiverse

By Matin Durrani

Photo of Martin Rees

Martin Rees, winner of the 2012 Isaac Newton medal, speaking at the Institute of Physics. (Courtesy: Helen Yates Photography)

I travelled to London last night to hear the celebrated astronomer Martin Rees give an entertaining and thought-provoking lecture to more than 100 people at the Institute of Physics as the winner of the 2012 Isaac Newton medal – the Institute’s top award.

Having written more than 500 papers on everything from black holes and gamma-ray bursts to quasars and the dynamics of gas clouds, Rees’s bulging CV also includes spells as president of both the Royal Society and of the Royal Astronomical Society, which I guess makes him a worthy winner of the prize. (I should add that although the Institute publishes Physics World, I was not involved in selecting Rees for the award.)

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60 Second Adventures in Astronomy

By Hamish Johnston

If you are a fan of astronomy and the comedian David Mitchell, the Open University has a treat for you. Mitchell and the OU have made a series of 12 short animated videos about the physics of the cosmos.

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Of mice and ‘little green men’

By Tushna Commissariat

Pop-culture image of a green alien

Just called to say hello?
(Wikimedia Commons/Crobard)

There’s nothing quite like mentioning extraterrestrials or aliens to get us “Earthlings” all excited or riled up! Late last week, a paper popped up on arXiv, by astronomer Alan Penny from the University of St Andrews. He outlines an incident where, for a short while, the possibility of alien contact was seriously considered. He was talking about what was ultimately the discovery of the first pulsar; but at the time the researchers couldn’t help but wonder if they had come across the first “artificial signal” from outer space.

The exciting happenings began in August 1967, when Jocelyn Bell Burnell (then a graduate student working with Antony Hewish – controversially, only Hewish won the Nobel prize for the pulsar discovery in 1974) at the University of Cambridge, noticed a particular source that had a “flickering pattern” that, over a few weeks, she realized showed up regularly each day at the same sidereal time. That December Bell pinpointed the specific position of the source in the sky using another telescope and the discovery was confirmed. In the coming months, three more similar patterns were found and the researchers agreed on “pulsating stars” or pulsars being the source. But during those winter months, the possibility that they had encountered the first alien signal loomed large. In fact, Brunell and colleagues dubbed the first pulsar LGM-1 or “Little Green Men”; although it was changed to CP 1919, and is now known as PSR B1919+21.

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Astronomers discover complex organic matter abound in the universe

Recurrent Nova RS Ophiuci


NASA image of the star field in the constellation Ophiucus; at the centre is the recurrent Nova RS Ophiuci (Credit: John Chumack)

By Tushna Commissariat

Complex organic compounds – one of the main markers of carbon-based life forms – have always been thought to arise from living organisms. But new research by physicists in Hong Kong, published yesterday in the journal Nature, suggests that these compounds can be synthesized in space even when no life forms are present.

Sun Kwok and Yong Zhang at the University of Hong Kong claim that a particular organic compound that is found throughout the universe contains complex compounds that resemble coal and petroleum – which have long been thought to come only from carbonaceous living matter.

The researchers say that the organic substance contains a mixture of aromatic (ring-like) and aliphatic (chain-like) complex components. They have come to this conclusion after looking at strange infrared emissions detected in stars, interstellar space and galaxies that are commonly known as unidentified infrared emissions (UIEs). These UIE signatures are thought to arise from simple organic molecules made of carbon and hydrogen atoms – polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon (PAH) molecules – being “pumped” by far-ultraviolet photons. But Kwok and Zhang both felt that hypothesis did not fill the bill accurately enough, when they considered the observational data.

As a solution, they have suggested an alternative – that the substances generating these infrared emissions have chemical structures that are much more complex. After analysing the spectra of star dust forming when stars explode, they found that stars are capable of making these complex organic compounds on extremely short timescales of weeks and that they then eject it into the general interstellar space – the region between stars.

Kwok had suggested, at an earlier date, that old stars could be “molecular factories” capable of producing organic compounds. “Our work has shown that stars have no problem making complex organic compounds under near-vacuum conditions,” says Kwok. “Theoretically, this is impossible, but observationally we can see it happening.”

Another interesting fact is that the organic star dust that Kwok and Zhang studied has a remarkable structural similarity to complex organic compounds found in meteorites. As meteorites are remnants of the early solar system, the findings raise the possibility that stars enriched our protoplanetary disc with organic compounds. The early Earth was known to have been bombarded by many comets and asteroids carrying organic star dust. Whether these organic compounds played any role in the development of life on Earth remains a mystery.

It will also be interesting to see if this finding has an impact on research groups that look for life in the universe, such as SETI , considering that complex organic molecules have always thought to be markers of carbon-based life forms.

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Starry Starry Night

NGC5394 and NGC5395.jpg




By Tushna Commissariat

It is commonly thought that astronomy and astrophotography are rather exclusive hobbies and that you require a lot of specialist equipment and training to pursue them. But an amateur astrophotographer, using only his ordinary digital SLR camera, a tripod and his love for the skies, has won the major astrophotography prize at the inaugural STARMUS festival.

Not only did Alex Cherney win the opportunity to attend and mingle with the who’s who of astronomy at the STARMUS festival – an astronomy and space-science festival held in the Canary Islands this June – but the Australian amateur astronomer also won an hour using one of the largest optical telescope on the planet – the 10.4 m Gran Telescopio Canarias (GranTeCan), in the Canary Islands in Spain.

Cherney’s prize-winning collection of time-lapse sequences of the Milky Way, seen over the Southern Ocean, beat a bevy of global participants for the best entry as judges felt his scenes were “chosen with the eye of an artist” and that his “subtle panning and excellent control of colour and contrast revealed technical skills of the highest order”. Cherney uses only his Nikon D700 DSLR camera and produced a compilation of images taken over 31 hours of exposure time.

This is notably the first time an amateur astronomer has been allowed access to the GranTeCan and Cherney was keen to make the most of the opportunity. After much deliberation, he decided to use his hour to observe and photograph Arp84, a pair of interacting galaxies – NGC5394 and NGC5395. (Image above courtesy: Alex Cherney)

“I wanted an object that would look nice given the parameters of the telescope and has not been photographed in colour and great detail by a professional telescope,” he said. Noel Carboni, an astro-image-processing expert, met Cherney at the festival and helped to produce a colour image. Carboni feels this is the clearest image of Arp84 ever made. Cherney felt the experience of using the telescope was “incredible”, akin to taking a space flight. “It is very hard to describe what it is like to observe space with an instrument that is helping scientists seek answers to the origin of the universe.”

Cherney put his opportunity of being at the La Palma observatory to good use, producing another time-lapse video featuring GranTeCan and MAGIC (Major Atmospheric Gamma-ray Imaging Cherenkov Telescopes) as the backdrop for the night skies. Take a look at the stunning video below.

Outer Space from Alex Cherney on Vimeo.

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Earth’s silent hitchhiker seen at last

Artist image of the first Earth Trojan asteroid
This artist’s concept illustrates the first known Earth Trojan asteroid (Credit: Paul Wiegert, University of Western Ontario, Canada)

By Tushna Commissarat

Looks as if the Earth has a cohort – one that has been hitching a ride with our planet’s orbit for a while now. Astronomers sifting through data from NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) mission have discovered the first known “Trojan” asteroid orbiting the Sun along with the Earth. It has been known since 1772 that stable small bodies can share the same orbit with a planet or a moon – as long as they remain at stable points in front of or behind the main body. Such Trojan asteroids have been found orbiting Jupiter, Mars, two of Saturn’s moons and Neptune, but had not been seen for the Earth until now. This is because they are difficult to detect, being relatively small and appearing near the Sun from the Earth’s point of view.

Trojans circle around “Lagrange points” – gravity wells where small objects can be relatively stable compared with two larger objects, in this case the Sun and the Earth. The points that the Earth’s Trojan – called 2010 TK7 – orbits around are known as the L4 and L5 points, and are 60° in front of and behind the Earth, respectively. As they constantly lead or follow in the same orbit as the planet, they can never collide with it; so you can breathe a sigh of relief if you were worried about a possible armageddon.

“These asteroids dwell mostly in the daylight, making them very hard to see,” says Martin Connors of Athabasca University, Canada, lead author of a paper about the discovery published in Nature. “But we finally found one, because the object has an unusual orbit that takes it farther away from the Sun than is typical for Trojans. WISE was a game-changer, giving us a point of view difficult to have at the Earth’s surface.”

The WISE telescope scanned the entire sky in the infrared from January 2010 to February this year. The researchers began looking for data for an Earth-bound Trojan using data from NEOWISE – a WISE mission that focused in part on near-Earth objects (NEOs), such as asteroids and comets. NEOs are bodies that pass within 45 million kilometres of Earth’s path around the Sun. The NEOWISE project observed more than 155,000 asteroids in the main belt between Mars and Jupiter, and more than 500 NEOs, discovering 132 that were previously unknown. The team found two Trojan candidates – of these, 2010 TK7 was confirmed as an Earth Trojan after follow-up observations were made using the Canada–France–Hawaii Telescope in Hawaii.

2010 TK7 is roughly 300 metres in diameter, at a distance of about 80 million kilometres from Earth. It has an unusual orbit that traces a complex motion near the Lagrange points in the plane of the Earth’s orbit, although it also moves above and below the plane. The asteroid’s orbit is well defined and remains stable for at least 10,000 years. For the next 100 years, it will not come closer to the Earth than 24 million kilometres. An animation, with a Star Wars worthy soundtrack, showing the orbit can be found below. (Image and video credit: Paul Wiegert, University of Western Ontario, Canada.)

A handful of other asteroids also have orbits similar to Earth. Such objects could make excellent candidates for future robotic or human exploration. Unfortunately, asteroid 2010 TK7 has not been deemed worthy of exploration because it travels too far above and below the plane of Earth’s orbit, and so would require a large amount of fuel to reach it.

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Mysterious ‘superflares’ confound astronomers

By Tushna Commissariat

Most of us with an interest in astronomy would recognize the Crab Nebula in images and videos quite readily. The supernova remnant, first seen on Earth in the year 1054, consists of a super-dense neutron start that spins about 30 times an second, making it a pulsar that swings a beam of radiation towards Earth, like a lighthouse.

NASA’s Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope is one of many that look for high-energy radiation sources, and recently the Crab Nebula has caught its eye. The past seven months have seen some rather dramatic variations within the nebula, with Fermi and other telescopes noticing X-ray flares a hundred times brighter than seen ever before.

Since 2009 Fermi has detected several short-lived gamma-ray flares at energies greater than 100 million electron volts (eV), which is much higher than the flares seen before. On 12 April Fermi detected a flare that grew about 30 times more energetic than the nebula’s normal gamma-ray output and about five times more powerful than previous outbursts. On 16 April an even brighter flare erupted, which lasted for a few days before the activity died out.

“These superflares are the most intense outbursts we’ve seen to date and they are all extremely puzzling events,” says Alice Harding of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. “We think they are caused by sudden rearrangements of the magnetic field not far from the neutron star, but exactly where that’s happening remains a mystery.”

When Fermi noted the variances in 2010 it alerted NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory, which began routinely monitoring the nebula to identify X-ray emissions associated with the outbursts. When Fermi scientists alerted the astronomers at Chandra about the spike in April, a pre-planned set of observations using the observatory was initiated.

Unfortunately, no clear evidence was seen for correlated flares in the Chandra images, so the reason for the sudden extreme variations is still a mystery. Theorists have deduced that the flares must arise within about one-third of a light-year from the neutron star, but efforts to locate them more precisely have been unsuccessful.

Scientists believe the flares occur as the intense magnetic field near the pulsar undergoes sudden structural changes. Such changes can accelerate electrons to velocities near the speed of light. As these relativistic electrons interact with the magnetic field, they emit gamma rays. To account for the observed emission, scientists say the electrons must have energies 100 times greater than can be achieved in any particle accelerator on Earth. This makes them the highest energy electrons associated with any source within our galaxy.

Take a look at the wonderful video by NASA that shows the changes as seen by Chandra, as well as some spectacular shots of the nebula.

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Through two mirrors, brightly

100 supercon.jpg
Hubble’s “Rose of Galaxies” anniversary image
(Courtesy: NASA, ESA, A Riess (STScI/JHU), L Macri (Texas A&M University) and Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA))

By Tushna Commissariat

Millions of people worldwide have exclaimed in awe and wonder at the images that the Hubble Space Telescope (HST) has been producing for more than two decades. The satellite has had a significant impact on all fields of science from planetary science to cosmology ever since it was launched on 24 April 1990 aboard Discovery’s STS-31 mission. In a bid to celebrate the 21st anniversary of the HST, astronomers at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Maryland, in the US pointed Hubble’s eye at a particularly magnificent cosmic phenomenon – a pair of interacting galaxies in the shape of a rose.

The newly released Hubble image shows two interacting galaxies known as Arp 273. The larger of the spiral galaxies – UGC 1810 – has a disc that is being distorted into a rose-like spiral thanks to the gravitational tidal pull of the companion galaxy below it, known as UGC 1813. The smaller companion shows signs of intense star formation at its nucleus, quite possibly triggered by the smaller galaxy actually passing through the disc of the larger galaxy. A veil of bright and hot young blue stars glows across the top of the dancing discs.

Arp 273 lies in the constellation Andromeda and is about 300 million light-years away from Earth. Though the galaxies are separated from each other by tens of thousands of light-years, they are connected by a tidal bridge of material between them that formed post interaction.

Take a look at the gorgeous image (above) and a video (below) zooming into the region of the galaxies.

In other space-related news, the final launch of the space shuttle Endeavour will take place tomorrow, 29 April, from Florida’s Space Coast in the US. So while Britons and many others all over the world will be watching the royal wedding, Kennedy Space Center is anticipating the arrival of an estimated half a million onlookers, eager to watch the space shuttle lift off one more time. Endeavour, first launched in May 1992, is expected to carry six astronauts, a cargo bay full of spare supplies and a $2bn astrophysics experiment to the International Space Station.

To look at some interesting images in the follow-up to the launch, look here: http://www.space.com/11221-photos-space-shuttle-endeavour-final-mission-sts134.html

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