TIME astronomy

Scientists Find a Black Hole 12 Billion Times More Massive Than the Sun

An artist's illustration shows a supermassive black hole with millions to billions times the mass of our sun at the center released by NASA on February 27, 2013.
NASA/JPL-Caltech/Handout/Reuters An artist's illustration shows a supermassive black hole with millions to billions times the mass of our sun at the center released by NASA on February 27, 2013.

It's discovery appears to confound current theories about how black holes are created

A team of international astronomers has discovered a black hole of almost unimaginable proportions.

At 12 billion times more massive than the sun, it challenges current cosmological thinking, reports Reuters.

“Our discovery presents a serious challenge to theories about the black hole growth in the early universe,” lead researcher Xue-Bing Wu for Peking University, China told the news agency.

The enormous object was formed 900 million years after the Big Bang, and scientists are stumped as to how a black hole of that size could have grown in such a relatively short time.

“Current theory is for a limit to how fast a black hole can grow, but this black hole is too large for that theory,” said fellow researcher Dr. Fuyan Bian, of Australian National University.

Not only is the black hole the biggest ever seen but also it’s at the center of the largest quasar ever discovered. (Quasars are the brightest and most powerful objects in the universe, with this one emitting huge amounts of energy and light as matter is ripped apart by the black hole at its core.)

For comparison, the black hole at the center of our galaxy, the Milky Way, has only about four to five million times the mass of the Sun.

The black hole was discovered by a team of global scientists at Peking University, China, tasked with mapping the northern sky, and their findings were published in the journal Nature.

[Reuters]

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TIME space

Watch a Meteor Burn Up in a Fiery Ball Over Pennsylvania

The fiery meteor likely left pieces of space rock scattered around western Pennsylvania, scientists say

A meteor burned up in the atmosphere over the skies of Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York Tuesday morning, lighting up in a flare that was reportedly brighter than the full moon.

Dr. William Cooke of the Meteoroid Environments Office at NASA confirmed that a meteor entered the Earth’s atmosphere over western Pennsylvania around 4:50am, the local NBC affiliate reports. It originated from an asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.

The 500-pound meteor moved east at a speed of 45,000 miles per hour, but cameras lost track of it 13 miles above the town of Kittanning, Pa., east of Pittsburgh. “There is a good chance of small fragments lying on the ground just to the east of Kittanning,” Cooke said.

[WFMJ]

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TIME astronomy

This Time-Lapse Video of the Sun Is the Trippiest Thing You’ll See Today

A disco ball from space

NASA has released a mesmerizing time-lapse video of the sun that shows everything the Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) has seen over the past five years, condensed into just under three minutes.

The supertrippy but rather beautiful video was captured by the SDO to celebrate their fifth anniversary and shows the giant ball of gas spinning and changing color.

According to NASA, each color represents a different visual wavelength through which the SDO observes the sun.

The time lapse was made by capturing one frame every eight hours since data collection began in June 2010, right up until Feb. 8, 2015.

 

TIME astronomy

See New, Close-Up Images of Pluto Taken by NASA Probe New Horizons

The probe is scheduled to fly past the dwarf planet on July 14 this year

NASA’s space probe New Horizons has sent back its first images of Pluto and its moon Charon during the probe’s final approach towards the dwarf planet, which the agency released Wednesday.

NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

The publishing of the images coincides with the birth anniversary of Clyde Tombaugh, Pluto’s discoverer, who died in 1997.

“This is our birthday tribute to Professor Tombaugh and the Tombaugh family, in honor of his discovery and life achievements,” said New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern.

The spacecraft, which has traveled 3 billion miles across the solar system for over nine years, is currently scheduled to fly past Pluto and its moons on July 14. (It took the above grainy but exciting images from about 126 million miles away.)

“Pluto is finally becoming more than a pinpoint of light,” said the mission’s project scientist Hal Weaver.

TIME astronomy

Astronomers Discover an Ancient Solar System That’s Very Similar to Our Own

Old Solar System
Tiago Campante, Peter Devine—AP This artist's rendering made available by Tiago Campante and Peter Devine shows the Kepler-444 star system, surrounded by at least five earth-sized planets.

Kepler-444 could help pinpoint when planets started to form

Astronomers have discovered an ancient solar system very similar to our own that dates back to the “dawn of the galaxy.”

Using NASA’s Kepler telescope, a team of international scientists found a star named Kepler-444 and five orbiting planets that are similar in size to Earth, the BBC reports.

Kepler-444 was formed 11.2 billion years ago, making it the oldest known system of its kind.

“By the time the Earth formed, the planets in this system were already older than our planet is today,” said Dr. Tiago Campate, the lead author of the study.

The discovery comes after four years’ of observations taken from NASA’s Kepler spacecraft.

Researchers say the discovery of older Earth-sized planets could provide scope for the existence of life on other ancient planets.

[BBC]

TIME astronomy

An Asteroid Will Fly Close to Earth on Monday

This graphic depicts the passage of asteroid 2004 BL86, which will come no closer than about three times the distance from Earth to the moon on Jan. 26, 2015. Due to its orbit around the sun, the asteroid is currently only visible by astronomers with large telescopes who are located in the southern hemisphere. But by Jan. 26, the space rock's changing position will make it visible to those in the northern hemisphere.
NASA/JPL-Caltech This graphic depicts the passage of asteroid 2004 BL86, which will come no closer than about three times the distance from Earth to the moon on Jan. 26, 2015. Due to its orbit around the sun, the asteroid is currently only visible by astronomers with large telescopes who are located in the southern hemisphere. But by Jan. 26, the space rock's changing position will make it visible to those in the northern hemisphere.

The rock will hurtle through space at just three times the distance between the Earth and the moon.

It doesn’t sound like a close shave, but in astronomical terms, it is.

An asteroid will fly within 745,000 miles of Earth on Monday, NASA said, the closest a space rock will fly to Earth until 2027. It won’t be a danger to the planet, but it’s not every day that an asteroid passes by us at just three times the distance from the Earth to the moon.

While the asteroid “poses no threat to Earth for the foreseeable future,” said Don Yeomans, manager of NASA’s Near Earth Object Program, “it’s a relatively close approach by a relatively large asteroid, so it provides us a unique opportunity to observe and learn more.”

The asteroid, labeled 2004 BL86, is about a third-of-a-mile in size, based on its brightness. Scientists will use microwaves to study the asteroid.

There’s a reason to be enthusiastic, said Yeomans, who is retiring from his position.

“Asteroids are something special,” Yeomans said. “Not only did asteroids provide Earth with the building blocks of life and much of its water, but in the future, they will become valuable resources for mineral ores and other vital natural resources. They will also become the fueling stops for humanity as we continue to explore our solar system. There is something about asteroids that makes me want to look up.”

TIME astronomy

The Microsoft HoloLens Is Going to Let Scientists Walk Around Mars

Joe Belfiore, Alex Kipman, Terry Myerson
Elaine Thompson—AP Microsoft's Joe Belfiore, from left, Alex Kipman, and Terry Myerson playfully pose for a photo while wearing "Hololens" devices following an event demonstrating new features of Windows 10 at the company's headquarters on Wednesday, Jan. 21, 2015

Strap on your headset for a tour of the red planet

Microsoft and NASA have jointly developed software that will allow scientists to remotely walk around Mars using the wearable Microsoft HoloLens, a hologram tool designed to view and interact with 3D images.

Created in NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in California, the technology, called OnSight, helps researchers prepare for future Mars-based operations by entering its richly-detailed environment, NASA announced in a news release.

Before this, scientists examined 2D digital representations of Mars, which geospatial depth.

“OnSight gives our rover scientists the ability to walk around and explore Mars right from their offices,” said Dave Lavery, program executive of of NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory.

“Previously, our Mars explorers have been stuck on one side of a computer screen. This tool gives them the ability to explore the rover’s surroundings much as an Earth geologist would do field work here on our planet,” said Jeff Norris, the OnSight project manager.

NASA intends to use OnSight in future rover operations and on a Curiosity mission this year.

[NASA]

TIME astronomy

There May Be ‘Super Earths’ at the Edge of Our Solar System

This discovery, if accurate, could completely redraw the map of the Solar System

The reason Pluto was demoted from the ranks of the planets back in 2006 was that astronomers had lately discovered it wasn’t alone out there. A whole assortment of Pluto-like objects is circling out beyond Neptune—too many, said the International Astronomical Union, for schoolchildren to memorize. (Seriously.) So despite a general public outcry that continues today, Pluto was demoted to “dwarf planet,” and the Solar System was left with a tidy eight.

But scientists think planets much bigger than Pluto could be orbiting beyond the reach of our most powerful telescopes. They probably aren’t as big as Saturn and Jupiter—but the unusual orbit of a tiny world called 2012 VP113, discovered last spring, hinted at the presence of something bigger than Earth. And now a pair of papers published in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society suggests the evidence is even stronger.

“We have unpublished calculations,” says lead author Carlos de la Fuente Marcos, of the Complutense University of Madrid, “that suggest that there could be two planets with between two and 15 times the mass of the Earth.”

As with last year’s discovery, the evidence for the two planets is indirect. “We would like to emphasize that we have not discovered any new objects,” de la Fuente Marcos says. What they’ve done instead is to look at the orbits of 13 small bodies, including 2012 VP113, that follow elongated orbits in the distant reaches of the solar system.

In particular, they’ve looked at an orbital parameter known, in a quaint throwback to the early days of astronomy, as the “argument of perihelion”—that is, the point at which their tilted orbits cross the plane in which the other planets circle the Sun. What de la Fuente Marcos and his team find is that these points are suspiciously similar for all 13, which implies that the gravity of some massive object or objects, still unseen, is herding them. (It involves the Kozai mechanism, since you’re undoubtedly wondering).

These Super Earths would be located about four times as far away as the outer limit of Pluto’s orbit—and that’s a bit of a problem, since current models of the Solar System’s formation have a tough time putting a big planet out at that distance, especially today. “They may have existed in the past, but at very low probability,” says Ramon Brasser, of the Cote d’Azur Observatory, in France. Brasser also argues that more than half of the objects de la Fuente Marcos and his co-authors cites as evidence come close to Neptune, whose own gravity skews the results.

De la Fuente Marcos disagrees on the second point. “In general,” he says, “these objects are weakly perturbed by Neptune if they are perturbed at all. He agrees on the former, but with a caveat. “If we assume that our models of Solar System formation are correct, the objection is valid. But what if our models are incorrect?”

Even if the models are correct, however and a super Earth can’t be orbiting where de la Fuente Marcos suggests, that doesn’t mean there’s nothing big out there. “It’s possible,” says Brasser, “but the planet would have to be much farther away and much more massive in order to have the same effect. This scenario,” he says, “is currently being investigated.”

But the investigations are still purely indirect. “If large planets do exist,” says de la Fuente Marcos, “these objects must be very dark … and they are very far away from the Sun.” There won’t be a prayer of spotting them until the James Webb Space Telescope, or one of the new giant ground-based telescopes now under construction, is up and running toward the end of this decade.

But for a discovery that could completely redraw the map of the solar system yet again, that’s not too awfully long to wait.

 

 

TIME space

See the Iconic ‘Pillars of Creation’ in a New Light

Hubble Heritage Team/ESA/NASA Using NASA's Hubble Space Telescope astronomers have assembled a bigger and sharper photograph of the iconic Eagle Nebula's "Pillars of Creation"

As NASA celebrates the Hubble's upcoming 25th anniversary

The Pillars of Creation quickly become one of the most iconic images of outer space after the photograph was taken in 1995. Now, to celebrate the upcoming 25th anniversary of the Hubble Space Telescope in April, Hubble is taking a trip down memory lane — and back into the far corners of the Eagle Nebula.

A new, high-definition photo recently unveiled at the American Astronomical Society meeting in Seattle provides an even sharper, wider and colorful view of three massive gas columns and their surrounding celestial neighbors in near-infrared light. NASA said the frame “hints that they are also pillars of destruction.”

“I’m impressed by how transitory these structures are,” Paul Scowen of Arizona State University, who worked on the initial Hubble observations of the Eagle Nebula, told NASA. “They are actively being ablated away before our very eyes. The ghostly bluish haze around the dense edges of the pillars is material getting heated up and evaporating away into space. We have caught these pillars at a very unique and short-lived moment in their evolution.”

Hubble Heritage Team/ESA/NASAThe original image of the “Pillars of Creation” taken by the Hubble Telescope in 1995.
TIME astronomy

NASA’s Kepler Telescope Discovers Another Planet on Comeback

The discovery marks a remarkable turnaround for Kepler

NASA’s Kepler spacecraft has found another new planet.

Dubbed HIP 116454b, the new body is bigger than Earth, smaller than Neptune and probably too hot to sustain life as we know it.

“The Kepler mission showed us that planets larger in size than Earth and smaller than Neptune are common in the galaxy, yet they are absent in our solar system,” Steve Howell, a project scientist at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California, said in statement.

The discovery marks a remarkable turnaround for Kepler. In May 2013, one of Kepler’s stabilizing reaction wheels failed and a team of engineers and scientists were forced to fashion an ingenious alternative for controlling the spacecraft, using pressure generated from sunlight.

During a subsequent test run in February, Kepler collected data on a previously undiscovered planet 180 light-years from Earth.

Follow-up observations confirmed the existence of the planet, which astronomers have called a watery “mini-Neptune,” with a tiny core and gaseous atmosphere, reports the New York Times.

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