The yellow spots represent icy areas.
Ice? On the planet closest to the Sun? You heard right: Mercury’s northern pole may have craters containing frozen water.
The evidence, presented in three papers published last week in Science, comes from several sources. The Mercury Laser Altimeter, an instrument on the Mercury space probe, MESSENGER, helps scientists map the topography of the planet by firing lasers at its surface and recording the time it takes for the light to return. The instrument also records the intensity of the return beams, and the bright spots reflecting off Mercury’s surface suggest the presence of ice. Read More
This vivid twist represents a solar cyclone, made of plasma, or ionized gas, moving along swirling magnetic fields on the Sun. It is a computer simulation of the storms on the Sun, created using data from a space telescope at NASA’s orbiting Solar Dynamics Observatory and the Swedish 1-meter Solar Telescope on Earth.
These solar cyclones may help to answer a question that scientists had long wondered about: why is the sun’s atmosphere more than 300 times hotter than its surface? Scientists previously thought that the heat came from the surface of the sun, but how it traveled to the surface was unclear. Now, researchers think that these solar storms, as many as 11,000 at once, funnel heat from the sun’s surface to the corona, as they reported in Nature.
Image via Wedemeyer-Böhm et al/Nature Publishing Group
The most recently observed stellar explosion in our neighborhood
was Kepler’s supernova, spotted 400 years ago.
Scientists using a telescope atop a Hawaiian volcano have detected a pair of extra-bright supernovae, or star explosions, one of which is the oldest, most-distant supernova ever detected.
That explosion occurred 12 billion years ago, making it a billion years older than the oldest supernova ever seen before. Because they are so bright—about 10 to 100 times brighter than most supernovae—these superluminous supernovae extend the limit on how far scientists can look back in time when they study the stars, whose light takes so long to reach us that what they are showing us is a picture of the universe in the past. With these results, published in Nature, scientists are peering closer than ever before to the time of the Big Bang, 13.7 billion years ago. Read More
In 1986, in a flyby shooting, the Voyager 2 space probe took some of our first photos of Uranus. The planet looked blue-green and featureless, a planetary pokerface. In the decades since, we’ve learned that Uranus does have weather, visible as variations in color on the surface, and new photos from by the Keck II telescope in Hawaii (above) reveal the ice giant’s meteorology in more detail than ever before. The scalloped pattern near the equator is a ring of clouds; the busy, blue-flecked cap at the right end—the planet’s North Pole—are storms.
For sunny weather, try another planet: this one gets sunlight hundreds times weaker than we do on Earth, and the temperature of its upper atmosphere drops as low as -371 F, making it the coldest planet in the solar system.
Image via Lawrence Sromovsky, Pat Fry, Heidi Hammel, Imke de Pater/University of Wisconsin
UPDATE: The jump as been canceled, due to gusty wind conditions. Stay tuned…
This afternoon, the Austrian parachuter Felix Baumgartner is expected to leap from a balloon nearly 23 miles above Roswell, New Mexico, and freefall Earthwards, achieving speeds faster than the speed of sound.
When Fomalhaut b was announced in 2008, images showed it following a clear orbit around its star.
What’s the News: Even if you don’t know an exoplanet from an exoskeleton, you probably saw the gorgeous images of Fomalhaut, aka “Sauron’s Eye,” making their way around the web in 2008. A tiny, bright dot in the star’s surrounding dust cloud had moved, showing itself to be a planet—the first planet beyond our solar system to actually be seen, rather than detected with nonoptical instruments. Cue the champagne!
But new pictures show something odd: Fomalhaut b, as the planet was named, is veering off in an unexpected direction. Does this mean it’s not a planet after all, or is there another explanation? Read More
Artist’s concept of the pulsar and its planet. The system could fit into our Sun, represented by the yellow surface.
What’s the News: An international team of astronomers has found an exotic planet possibly made of diamond, located about 4,000 light-years away from Earth. The researchers believe that the unusual planet was once a sun-like star, transformed into its current state by its hungry stellar companion, a millisecond pulsar.
What’s the News: For the first time, astronomers have found molecular oxygen, which makes up about 20 percent of our air on Earth, in space. Using the large telescope aboard the Herschel Space Observatory, a team of researchers from the European Space Agency and NASA detected the simple molecule in a star-forming region of the Orion Nebula, located about 1,500 light-years from Earth. This takes astronomers one step closer to discovering where all of the oxygen in space is hiding.
What’s the News: Jupiter’s moon Io is more volcanically active than any other object in our solar system, releasing 30 times more heat than Earth through volcanism. It’s thought that Jupiter’s gravity pulls so hard on the moon and causes so much friction that the resulting thermal energy melts a huge amount of underground rock, feeding Io’s 400 active volcanoes.
For years, astronomers have debated whether Io’s spewing lava comes from isolated pockets of magma or a layer that spans the entire moon. Astronomers have now peered into Io’s interior for the first time, discovering that it has a global sea of magma roughly 30 miles thick. “It turns out Io was continually giving off a ‘sounding signal’ in Jupiter’s … magnetic field that matched what would be expected from molten or partially molten rocks deep beneath the surface,” lead researcher Krishan Khurana told Wired. Read More
What’s the News: Looking at images of odd undulations in the rings of Saturn and Jupiter, astronomers have discovered that comets are to blame. The finding means that a planet’s rings act as a historical record of passing comets, possibly leading to a better understanding of comet populations. “We now know that collisions into the rings are very common—a few times per decade for Jupiter and a few times per century for Saturn,” Mark Showalter, from the SETI Institute in Mountain View, California, told the Daily Mail. “Now scientists know that the rings record these impacts like grooves in a vinyl record, and we can play back their history later.”