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Institute of Astronomy


‘Wobbly spacetime’ may help resolve contradictory physics theories

Tue, 05/12/2023 - 14:13

Scientist proposes framework for reconciling mathematically incompatible theories of quantum mechanics and Einstein’s gravity

At the heart of modern physics is a gulf that scientists have spent more than a century trying to bridge. Quantum mechanics gives an apparently flawless description of the forces that dominate at the atomic scale. Albert Einstein’s theory of general relativity has never been proven wrong in its predictions of how gravity shapes cosmic events. But the two theories are fundamentally incompatible.

Now, scientists have proposed a framework that they say could unify these two pillars of physics, through a radical rethink of the nature of spacetime. Instead of time ticking away predictably, under the “postquantum theory of classical gravity”, the rate at which time flows would wobble randomly, like the ebb and flow of a stream.

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Gravitational waves from mega black-hole collision reveal long-sought ‘ringing’

Mon, 04/12/2023 - 10:23

Nature, Published online: 01 December 2023; doi:10.1038/d41586-023-03813-w

Researchers find massive merger’s signature aftershocks hidden in 2019 data from LIGO and Virgo detectors.

Passing star could fling Earth out past Pluto into the Oort cloud

Mon, 04/12/2023 - 10:22

If another star passed close to our solar system, there is a small chance that Earth could crash into another planet, get stolen by the interloping star or even be sent hurtling towards the Oort cloud

Largest stream of stars ever found could teach us about dark matter

Mon, 04/12/2023 - 10:21

The newfound Giant Coma Stream of stars stretches nearly 1.7 million light years across the cosmos, and it could have holes blasted through it by clumps of dark matter

NASA’s Educational CubeSats: Small Satellites, Big Impact

Fri, 01/12/2023 - 10:13
The CubeSats from NASA’s ELaNa 38 mission were deployed from the International Space Station on Jan. 26, 2022. Seen here is the deployment of The Aerospace Corporation’s Daily Atmospheric and Ionospheric Limb Imager (DAILI).NASA

Despite their small size, the satellites launching through NASA’s CubeSat Launch Initiative (CSLI) missions have a big impact, creating access to space for many who might not otherwise have the opportunity. One recent mission tells the story of four teams of researchers and engineers who conceived, built, launched, and collected data from these shoebox-sized satellites, helping them answer a host of questions about our planet and the universe.

The teams’ CubeSats launched as part of the ELaNa 38 (Educational Launch of Nanosatellites) mission, selected by CSLI and assigned to the mission by NASA’s Launch Services Program. A little more than a month after launching aboard SpaceX’s 24th commercial resupply services mission from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, the CubeSats were deployed from the International Space Station on Jan. 26, 2022.

Being selected by CSLI was an inspirational once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for more than 100 undergraduate students who worked on ELaNA 38’s Get Away Special Passive Attitude Control Satellite (GASPACS) CubeSat.

“None of us had ever worked on a project like this, much less built a satellite on our own,” said Jack Danos, team coordinator of Utah State University’s Get Away Special, or GAS Team. “When we first heard the audio beacon from our satellite in orbit, we all cheered.”

It took the GAS Team nearly a decade to develop and build GASPACS – the team’s first CubeSat – with many team members graduating in the process. But the team’s focus remained the same – to deploy and photograph a meter-long inflatable boom, known as the AeroBoom, from its CubeSat in Low Earth orbit.

A photograph taken by the GASPACS CubeSat shows the AeroBoom fully deployed. Utah State University

“When we saw that first photo come through, we were blown away, speechless,” Danos said. “This had been a decade of work and learning everything required for a real satellite mission – a lot of us got skills that we never could have gotten in a normal school environment.”

The team of college students who built Georgia Tech’s Tethering and Ranging mission (TARGIT) developed it to test an imaging LiDAR system capable of detailed topographic mapping from orbit. TARGIT’s students machined the CubeSat components themselves and integrated several new technologies into the final flight system.

“CSLI was a great window into how NASA works and the formal processes to ensure the hardware that gets launched meets requirements,” said Dr. Brian Gunter, principal investigator on the Georgia Institute of Technology TARGIT CubeSat. “Our spacecraft would not have made it to orbit without this program.”

Georgia Tech’s Tethering and Ranging CubeSat engaged over 100 students at the university and overcame obstacles presented by the global pandemic to get to launch.Georgia Institute of Technology

Prior to launch, the Georgia Tech team worked closely with NASA’s CSLI team, gained considerable industry experience, and delivered a flight-ready spacecraft, even after COVID forced a full shutdown of activity for an extended period, during which many key team members graduated.

“Just getting the spacecraft ready and delivered was the greatest achievement for the group and was a nice example of teamwork and resiliency from the students,” Gunter said.

Not all ELaNa 38’s CubeSats were student-built. With the goal of studying processes affecting Earth’s upper atmosphere and ionosphere, The Aerospace Corporation’s Daily Atmospheric and Ionospheric Limb Imager (DAILI) CubeSat employed an ambitious forward sunshade that was key to DAILI’s ability to examine atmospheric variations during daytime. As perhaps the most sophisticated sunshade ever flown on a CubeSat, it reduced intense scattered light from the Sun, the Earth’s surface, and low-altitude clouds by a factor of almost a trillion.

The Aerospace Corporation’s DAILI featured an ambitious sunshade that helped the CubeSat examine minute variations in the atmosphere. The Aerospace Corporation

“Not only did we have a shade that occupied over half of the space we had on the CubeSat – we also needed room for the optics, the detector, and for the CubeSat bus,” said Dr. James Hecht, senior scientist at Ionospheric and Atmospheric Sciences at Aerospace and DAILI principal investigator. “The effectiveness of the shade depended greatly on the length of the shade to the angular field of view of DAILI. It was a challenge, but it worked.”

Rounding out the ELaNa 38 flight was the Passive Thermal Coating Observatory Operating in Low Earth Orbit (PATCOOL) satellite, sponsored by NASA’s Launch Services Program and developed by the Advanced Autonomous Multiple Spacecraft Laboratory at the University of Florida. PATCOOL tested a highly reflective surface coating called “solar white” to measure its efficiency as way to passively cool components in space.

PATCOOL during its development at the Advanced Autonomous Multiple Spacecraft Laboratory at the University of FloridaUniversity of Florida

Through ELaNa 38’s four small satellites, hundreds of individuals – many developing and launching spacecraft for the first time – achieved access to space. For NASA, increasing access to space and making data and innovations accessible to all also serves to reinforce the future of the country’s space industry.

“This is an opportunity that you just can’t get anywhere else – the ability to send something into space, get the ride paid for, and form relationships within the industry,” Danos said. “There are so many members of the team that went into the space industry after the mission – a mission we literally couldn’t have done without NASA’s CSLI.”

The hunt for dark-matter particles ventures into the wild

Fri, 01/12/2023 - 10:12

Nature, Published online: 30 November 2023; doi:10.1038/d41586-023-03749-1

Sensors deployed at magnetically quiet rural sites looked for axions and ‘hidden photons’ — with no luck yet.

Tiny star found harbouring a huge planet that shouldn’t exist

Fri, 01/12/2023 - 10:11

An enormous planet has been spotted orbiting a small star, and it could not have formed under either of our existing models of the birth of planets

See a forgotten meteor shower caused by a dead comet this weekend

Fri, 01/12/2023 - 10:11

The Andromedid meteor shower is normally a quiet affair, but very occasionally it puts on an intense show - which may happen on 2 December

Unique Moon sites could be ‘lost forever’ in mining rush

Fri, 01/12/2023 - 10:11
Science, Volume 382, Issue 6674, Page 984-985, December 2023.

A low-mass star with a large-mass planet

Fri, 01/12/2023 - 10:10
Science, Volume 382, Issue 6674, Page 999-999, December 2023.

Astronomers spot ‘overweight’ planet that appears too big for tiny host star

Fri, 01/12/2023 - 09:54

Fact that planet 13 times bigger than Earth is orbiting star nine times smaller than sun shows ‘how little we know about the universe’

Astronomers have spotted an “overweight” planet that appears to be far too massive for its petite host star.

The planet, which is 13 times bigger than Earth, is orbiting a star called LHS 3154, which is nine times smaller than the sun. The planet’s heft is unremarkable in its own right, but its pairing with an ultracool dwarf star, the smallest and coldest stars in the universe, has puzzled scientists.

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'Perfect solar system' found in search for alien life

Thu, 30/11/2023 - 10:42

Astronomers hope to learn how its six planets formed and whether any of them are home to life

ESO joins the European Open Science Cloud Association

Thu, 30/11/2023 - 10:41

In a significant step in the direction of Open Science, ESO has formally joined the European Open Science Cloud (EOSC) Association as a Member. The Association is the legal entity governing the EOSC.

The EOSC is an European Commission initiative to "enable researchers to find, create, share and reuse all forms of digital knowledge – such as publications, data and software – leading to new insights and innovations, higher research productivity and improved reproducibility in science”, in the words of former Commissioner of Innovation, Research, Culture, Education & Youth Mariya Gabriel. ESO has long supported it, by endorsing the EOSC Declaration in 2017 and with its continuing participation in ESCAPE, a project — which stemmed from the EOSC — that brings together the astronomy, astroparticle and particle physics communities in Europe in support of Open Science. By joining the EOSC Association, ESO will now be involved in its governance, as well.

ESO has a long tradition in crucial aspects of Open Science. Archives and data processing tools for the La Silla Paranal and ALMA observatories give access to its full suite of millimetre, infrared and optical observations, endorsing the FAIR principles to make the data findable, accessible, interoperable and reusable [1]. In addition, ESO supports open access to science publications through the journal Astronomy & Astrophysics, which is published on its behalf.

These principles guide ESO into its governance role with the EOSC, supporting scientific development across disciplines, institutes and countries. ESO itself is a testament to the scientific benefits from intergovernmental cooperation, and by joining the EOSC Association, will promote Open Science across Europe and beyond.


[1] ESO archival data is released publicly after a one-year proprietary period in which the Principal Investigators have exclusive access to the data they proposed and observed.

Discovery Alert: Watch the Synchronized Dance of a 6-Planet System

Thu, 30/11/2023 - 10:41
Discovery Alert: Watch the Synchronized Dance of a 6-Planet System

The discovery: Six planets orbit their central star in a rhythmic beat, a rare case of an “in sync” gravitational lockstep that could offer deep insight into planet formation and evolution.

Key facts: A star smaller and cooler than our Sun hosts a truly strange family of planets: six “sub-Neptunes” – possibly smaller versions of our own Neptune – moving in a cyclic rhythm. This orbital waltz repeats itself so precisely it can be readily set to music.

This animation shows six “sub-Neptune” exoplanets in rhythmic orbits around their star – with a musical tone as each planet passes a line drawn through the system. The line is where the planets cross in front of (transit) their star from Earth’s perspective. In these rhythms, known as “resonance,” the innermost planet makes three orbits for every two of the next planet out. Among the outermost planets, a pattern of four orbits for every three of the next planet out is repeated twice. Animation credit: Dr. Hugh Osborn, University of Bern

Details: While multi-planet systems are common in our galaxy, those in a tight gravitational formation known as “resonance” are observed by astronomers far less often. In this case, the planet closest to the star makes three orbits for every two of the next planet out – called a 3/2 resonance – a pattern that is repeated among the four closest planets.

Among the outermost planets, a pattern of four orbits for every three of the next planet out (a 4/3 resonance) is repeated twice. And these resonant orbits are rock-solid: The planets likely have been performing this same rhythmic dance since the system formed billions of years ago. Such reliable stability means this system has not suffered the shocks and shakeups scientists might typically expect in the early days of planet formation – smash-ups and collisions, mergers and breakups as planets jockey for position. And that, in turn, could say something important about how this system formed. Its rigid stability was locked in early; the planets’ 3/2 and 4/3 resonances are almost exactly as they were at the time of formation. More precise measurements of these planets’ masses and orbits will be needed to further sharpen the picture of how the system formed.

Fun facts: The discovery of this system is something of a detective story. The first hints of it came from NASA’s TESS (the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite), which tracks the tiny eclipses – the “transits” – that planets make as they cross the faces of their stars. Combining the TESS measurements, made in separate observations two years apart, revealed an assortment of transits for the host star, called HD 110067. But it was difficult to distinguish how many planets they represented, or to pin down their orbits.

Eventually, astronomers singled out the two innermost planets, with orbital periods – “years” – of 9 days for the closest planet, 14 days for the next one out. A third planet, with a year about 20 days long, was identified with the help of data from CHEOPS, The European Space Agency’s CHaracterising ExOPlanets Satellite.

Then the scientists noticed something extraordinary. The three planets’ orbits matched what would be expected if they were locked in a 3/2 resonance. The next steps were all about math and gravity. The science team, led by Rafael Luque of the University of Chicago, worked through a well-known list of resonances that potentially could be found in such systems, trying to match them to the remaining transits that had been picked up by TESS. The only resonance chain that matched up suggested a fourth planet in the system, with an orbit about 31 days long. Two more transits had been seen, but their orbits remained unaccounted for because they were only single observations (more than one transit observation is needed to pin down a planet’s orbit). The scientists again ran through the list of possible orbits if there were two additional, outer planets that fit the expected chain of resonances across the whole system. The best fit they found: a fifth planet with a 41-day orbit, and a sixth just shy of 55.

At this point the science team almost hit a dead end. The slice of the TESS observations that had any chance of confirming the predicted orbits of the two outer planets had been set aside during processing. Excessive light scattered through the observation field by Earth and the Moon seemed to make them unusable. But not so fast. Scientist Joseph Twicken, of the SETI Institute and of the NASA Ames Research Center, took notice of the scattered light problem. He knew that scientist David Rapetti, also of Ames and of the Universities Space Research Association, happened to be working on a new computer code to recover transit data thought to be lost because of scattered light. At Twicken’s suggestion, Rapetti applied his new code to the TESS data. He found two transits for the outer planets – exactly where the science team led by Luque had predicted.

The discoverers: An international team of researchers led by Rafael Luque, of the University of Chicago, published a paper online on the discovery, “A resonant sextuplet of sub-Neptunes transiting the bright star HD 110067,” in the journal Nature on Nov. 29.

Tracing a link between two neighbour planet at regular time interval along their orbits, creates a pattern unique to each couple. The six planets of the HD110067 system create together a mesmerising geometric pattern due to their resonance-chain. Credit: Thibaut Roger/NCCR PlanetS, CC BY-NC-SA 4.0

A resonant sextuplet of sub-Neptunes transiting the bright star HD 110067

Thu, 30/11/2023 - 10:40

Nature, Published online: 29 November 2023; doi:10.1038/s41586-023-06692-3

Observations of six transiting planets around the bright nearby star HD 110067 show that they follow a chain of resonant orbits, with three of the planets inferring the presence of large hydrogen-dominated atmospheres.

A probable Keplerian disk feeding an optically revealed massive young star

Thu, 30/11/2023 - 10:40

Nature, Published online: 29 November 2023; doi:10.1038/s41586-023-06790-2

The authors suggest that a probable Keplerian disk is feeding an optically revealed massive young stellar object in the Large Magellanic Cloud.

Key molecule for life may have formed on interstellar ice

Thu, 30/11/2023 - 10:39

Some scientists suspect that amino acids were transported to Earth by meteorites. A team has now found that an amino acid called carbamic acid forms at extreme cold temperatures, suggesting that it may have been created on clumps of ice in deep space

Six planets found orbiting a bright star 100 light years away

Thu, 30/11/2023 - 10:39

The orbits of six planets around the star HD 110067 have been in a fixed pattern for billions of years, giving astronomers clues about how they formed

Rolf Chini Cerro Murphy Observatory inaugurated

Wed, 29/11/2023 - 10:00

Today, in a celebration at Cerro Murphy in the Chilean Atacama Desert, the Nicolaus Copernicus Astronomical Center of the Polish Academy of Sciences (CAMK), along with the European Southern Observatory (ESO) and other entities, inaugurated the renewed Rolf Chini Cerro Murphy Observatory. Hosted within ESO’s Paranal Observatory, the Observatory has undergone a major rebuild since 2020 and is ready to begin scientific observations again, marking a new chapter in its history.

The Rolf Chini Cerro Murphy Observatory inauguration celebrates the beginning of scientific operations for three new optical telescopes, which will join existing facilities to explore how fast the Universe is expanding.

The Observatory is dedicated to the Araucaria Project, a collaboration between astronomers from Chile, the USA and Europe, focused on improving the calibration of the extragalactic distance scale, a combination of methods by which astronomers measure the distance of objects throughout the Universe. The data gathered at the Observatory will be important for determining precisely the expansion rate of the Universe. 

Located in the high and dry Atacama Desert, the observing conditions are among the best in the world. As well as sharing pristine skies with other ESO telescopes — ESO’s Extremely Large Telescope (ELT) is under construction on the neighbouring Cerro Armazones, and Cerro Paranal, where ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) is located, is just 20 kilometres away — the separate facilities will share resources such as fibre optic cables for internet and access roads.

In addition to the renewed scientific capability of the Observatory, the inauguration also marks a new era in its operation. In 2020, leadership was transferred from the Ruhr University Bochum (RUB) and the Catholic University of the North (UCN), who had jointly run it since 2005, to CAMK. Formerly called the Cerro Armazones Observatory, the new name honours Rolf Chini, a professor at RUB who is credited with the creation and development of the observatory, and Cerro Murphy, the hill it resides on.

The new optical telescopes include the 1.5-metre telescope Janusz Kałużny, for imaging and high resolution spectroscopy, as well as the 0.8-metre telescope Zbigniew "Zibi" Kołaczkowski and the 0.6-metre telescope Wojtek Krzemiński, both for imaging. In addition, a new 2.5-metre telescope, the largest Polish telescope to date, will be added to the Observatory, with the start of operations planned for 2025. From the Observatory’s previous operations are the 0.8-metre InfraRed Imaging System (IRIS), an infrared imager, and the 30-centimetre BMK10k, a robotic, wide-field camera operated by the Leibniz-Institute for Astrophysics in Potsdam.

To follow along with the celebrations, watch the inauguration on YouTube.