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Site: http://phys.org/space-news/

"As Hubble makes its 26th revolution around our home star, the sun, we celebrate the event with a spectacular image of a dynamic and exciting interaction of a young star with its environment. The view of the Bubble Nebula, crafted from WFC-3 images, reminds us that Hubble gives us a front row seat to the awe inspiring Universe we live in," said John Grunsfeld, Hubble astronaut and associate administrator of NASA's Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters, in Washington, D.C. The Bubble Nebula is 7 light-years across—about one-and-a-half times the distance from our sun to its nearest stellar neighbor, Alpha Centauri, and resides 7,100 light-years from Earth in the constellation Cassiopeia. The seething star forming this nebula is 45 times more massive than our sun. Gas on the star gets so hot that it escapes away into space as a "stellar wind" moving at over 4 million miles per hour. This outflow sweeps up the cold, interstellar gas in front of it, forming the outer edge of the bubble much like a snowplow piles up snow in front of it as it moves forward. As the surface of the bubble's shell expands outward, it slams into dense regions of cold gas on one side of the bubble. This asymmetry makes the star appear dramatically off-center from the bubble, with its location in the 10 o'clock position in the Hubble view. Dense pillars of cool hydrogen gas laced with dust appear at the upper left of the picture, and more "fingers" can be seen nearly face-on, behind the translucent bubble. The gases heated to varying temperatures emit different colors: oxygen is hot enough to emit blue light in the bubble near the star, while the cooler pillars are yellow from the combined light of hydrogen and nitrogen. The pillars are similar to the iconic columns in the "Pillars of Creation" Eagle Nebula. As seen with the structures in the Eagle Nebula, the Bubble Nebula pillars are being illuminated by the strong ultraviolet radiation from the brilliant star inside the bubble. The Bubble Nebula was discovered in 1787 by William Herschel, a prominent British astronomer. It is being formed by a proto-typical Wolf-Rayet star, BD +60º2522, an extremely bright, massive, and short-lived star that has lost most of its outer hydrogen and is now fusing helium into heavier elements. The star is about 4 million years old, and in 10 million to 20 million years, it will likely detonate as a supernova. Hubble's Wide Field Camera 3 imaged the nebula in visible light with unprecedented clarity in February 2016. The colors correspond to blue for oxygen, green for hydrogen, and red for nitrogen. This information will help astronomers understand the geometry and dynamics of this complex system. The Bubble Nebula is one of only a handful of astronomical objects that have been observed with several different instruments onboard Hubble. Hubble also imaged it with the Wide Field Planetary Camera (WFPC) in September of 1992, and with Wide Field Planetary Camera 2 (WFPC2) in April of 1999. The Hubble Space Telescope is a project of international cooperation between NASA and the European Space Agency. NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, manages the telescope. The Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) in Baltimore, Maryland, conducts Hubble science operations. STScI is operated for NASA by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy in Washington, D.C.

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Just in time for the release of the movie "Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens," NASA's Hubble Space Telescope has photographed what looks like a cosmic, double-bladed lightsaber. In the center of the image, partially obscured by a dark, Jedi-like cloak of dust, a newborn star shoots twin jets out into space as a sort of birth announcement to the universe. "Science fiction has been an inspiration to generations of scientists and engineers, and the film series Star Wars is no exception," said John Grunsfeld, astronaut and associate administrator for the NASA Science Mission directorate. "There is no stronger case for the motivational power of real science than the discoveries that come from the Hubble Space Telescope as it unravels the mysteries of the universe." This celestial lightsaber does not lie in a galaxy far, far away, but rather inside our home galaxy, the Milky Way. It's inside a turbulent birthing ground for new stars known as the Orion B molecular cloud complex, located 1,350 light-years away. When stars form within giant clouds of cool molecular hydrogen, some of the surrounding material collapses under gravity to form a rotating, flattened disk encircling the newborn star. Though planets will later congeal in the disk, at this early stage the protostar is feeding on the disk with a Jabba-like appetite. Gas from the disk rains down onto the protostar and engorges it. Superheated material spills away and is shot outward from the star in opposite directions along an uncluttered escape route -- the star's rotation axis. Shock fronts develop along the jets and heat the surrounding gas to thousands of degrees Fahrenheit. The jets collide with the surrounding gas and dust and clear vast spaces, like a stream of water plowing into a hill of sand. The shock fronts form tangled, knotted clumps of nebulosity and are collectively known as Herbig-Haro (HH) objects. The prominent HH object shown in this image is HH 24. Just to the right of the cloaked star, a couple of bright points are young stars peeking through and showing off their own faint lightsabers -- including one that has bored a tunnel through the cloud towards the upper-right side of the picture. Overall, just a handful of HH jets have been spotted in this region in visible light, and about the same number in the infrared. Hubble's observations for this image were performed in infrared light, which enabled the telescope to peer through the gas and dust cocooning the newly forming stars and capture a clear view of the HH objects. These young stellar jets are ideal targets for NASA's upcoming James Webb Space Telescope, which will have even greater infrared wavelength vision to see deeper into the dust surrounding newly forming stars. The Hubble Space Telescope is a project of international cooperation between NASA and the European Space Agency. NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, manages the telescope. The Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) in Baltimore, Maryland, conducts Hubble science operations. STScI is operated for NASA by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy, in Washington, D.C.

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Site: https://www.sciencenews.org/

Our galaxy is teeming with planets. Over the last 25 years, astronomers have cataloged about 2,000 worlds in 1,300 systems scattered around our stellar neighborhood. While most of these exoplanets look nothing like Earth (and in some cases, like nothing that orbits our sun), the bonanza of alien worlds implies a tantalizing possibility: There is a lot of real estate out there suitable for life. We haven’t explored every corner of our solar system. Life might be lurking beneath the surface of some icy satellites or in the soil of Mars. For such locales, we could conceivably visit and look for anything wriggling or replicating. But we can’t travel (yet) to worlds orbiting remote suns dozens of light-years away. An advanced alien civilization might transmit detectable radio signals, but primitive life would not be able to announce its presence to the cosmos. At least not intentionally. On Earth, life alters the atmosphere. If plants and critters weren’t around to keep churning out oxygen and methane, those gases would quickly vanish. Water, carbon dioxide, methane, oxygen and ozone are examples of “biosignatures,” key markers of a planet crawling with life as we know it. Setting aside questions about how recognizable alien life might be, detecting biosignatures in the atmosphere of an exoplanet would give astronomers the first strong clue that we are not alone. Biosignatures aren’t proof of thriving ecosystems. Ultraviolet light from a planet’s sun can zap water molecules and create a stockpile of oxygen; seawater filtering through rocks can produce methane. “We’ll never be able to say 100 percent that a planet has life,” says Sarah Rugheimer, an astrophysicist at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. But astronomers hope that, given enough information about an exoplanet and the star it orbits, they can build a case for a world where sunlight and geology aren’t enough to explain its chemistry — one where life is a viable possibility. Finding a planet similar to Earth is probably still decades away, but thanks to a couple of upcoming telescopes, astronomers might be on the verge of spying on habitable worlds around nearby stars. NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, or TESS, will launch in 2017 on a quest to detect many of the exoplanets that orbit the stars closest to us. One year later, the James Webb Space Telescope will launch and peek inside some of these newfound atmospheres. With their powers combined, TESS and James Webb could identify nearby planets that are good candidates for life. These worlds will probably be quite different from Earth — they’ll be a bit larger and orbit faint, red suns — but some researchers hope that a few will offer hints of alien biology. Over the next decade, several telescopes will join existing observatories in the hunt for exoplanets and hints of alien life. Exoplanets don’t give up their secrets easily; they are distant, tiny and snuggled up to blazing stars. With some exceptions, current telescopes can’t directly see exoplanets, so astronomers use other means to infer their existence. In rare cases, a remote solar system is oriented so that its planets pass between their sun and Earth, an event known as a transit. During a transit, the star temporarily dims as a planet blocks some of its light. Transits are powerful tools; not only can they help reveal a planet’s density — a way to distinguish gas planets from solid ones — but they also can allow astronomers to inventory the molecules floating in an exoplanet’s atmosphere. During a transit, molecules in the planet’s atmosphere absorb certain wavelengths of the star’s light, leaving a chemical fingerprint. By deciphering that fingerprint, researchers can deduce the chemical makeup of an alien world. Astronomers so far have used the transit technique primarily with space-based telescopes such as the Hubble Space Telescope to investigate the atmospheres of more than 50 exoplanets, most of them worlds the size of Jupiter and Neptune (SN: 11/15/14, p. 4). The puffy atmospheres of giant planets are easier to detect than the relatively slim atmospheres of small rocky worlds. As tools have improved, researchers have started to check out super-Earths, planets that are smaller than Neptune but larger than ours. Though no such planets exist in our solar system, they appear to be one of the most common types in the galaxy. Only three super-Earths have come under telescope scrutiny so far: GJ 1214b, HD 97658b and 55 Cancri e. These worlds are nothing like Earth. Two of them orbit dim, red suns, all of them whip around their stars in a few days (or even hours) and none are in the coveted habitable zone  — the region around a star where a planet’s temperatures are just right for liquid water. Around GJ 1214b and HD 97658b, astronomers found no signs of molecules absorbing starlight, leading researchers to conclude that both worlds are blanketed in clouds or haze (SN Online: 1/2/14). In February, researchers reported signs of hydrogen cyanide on 55 Cancri e. If confirmed, it would be the first detection of any molecule in the atmosphere of a super-Earth. “These are very challenging measurements, at the limit of [the Hubble Space Telescope’s] capabilities,” cautions Heather Knutson, an astrophysicist at Caltech. “We’re still learning about the performance of the telescope at this level of precision.” Astronomers will undoubtedly try to squeeze more information out of similar worlds. But, says Kevin France, an astrophysicist at the University of Colorado Boulder, “we’ve pushed Hubble about as far as we can.” And Hubble won’t be around forever (SN: 4/18/15, p. 18). To continue sniffing around in exoplanet atmospheres, researchers are looking toward Hubble’s successor, the James Webb Space Telescope. James Webb “is going to be a revolution in astronomy,” says Jonathan Lunine, an astrophysicist at Cornell University. The infrared observatory boasts a mirror 2.7 times as wide as Hubble’s. James Webb will seek out the first generation of stars, track how galaxies grow and — most relevant to the search for life — poke around in planetary atmospheres. Analyzing the atmospheres of planets the size of Neptune and Jupiter should be a breeze for James Webb. These large planets block enough light to make transits readily detectable, and the fluffy atmospheres are easier to measure. Super-Earths, which are smaller with thin atmospheres, are more challenging, but James Webb should be able to investigate a few. Although replicas of Earth are beyond even James Webb’s capabilities, there will be plenty for the observatory to do. “Even if we can’t get biosignatures on planets the size of Earth, we’re going to find out so much about the nature of exoplanets,” Lunine says. “It’s going to open up a huge number of doors.” The trouble with an Earth-like world is that it doesn’t transit often and both the planet and its atmosphere are tiny. It’s the same kind of problem an alien group would experience trying to detect us. When viewed from afar, Earth blocks less than 0.01 percent of the sun’s light, and only a few percent of that is due to the atmosphere. To an alien astronomer, Earth crosses the sun once a year for, at most, 13 hours. And that’s assuming the aliens live in the right part of the galaxy to witness an Earth transit. Telescopes operated by the bulk of the Milky Way’s citizens will never line up with both the sun and Earth. The odds of finding life improve if astronomers focus their efforts on M dwarfs, which make up about three-quarters of the stars in the galaxy. The dim red orbs are small, so a transiting planet blocks a relatively large fraction of the star’s light, making transits easier to detect. Habitable worlds also transit more frequently. To sustain liquid water, a planet must huddle close to one of these cool stars to stay warm. An orbit in the habitable zone of an M dwarf is much shorter than a comparable trip around the sun. Rather than wait for a year between transits, astronomers might have to wait for only a few weeks or months. Plus, a planet on a cozy orbit is more forgiving when it comes to getting the viewing geometry just right to see a transit. There are potential downsides to M dwarfs. Most of the light they radiate is infrared, so photosynthesis on orbiting planets would be very different compared with photosynthesis on Earth. There’s no guarantee that biosignatures from vegetation that thrives on infrared light would look anything like those from local varieties. Many M dwarfs also emit occasional blasts of ultraviolet radiation — blasts made even more dangerous because any habitable planet sits close to the star. Habitable worlds need to be so close, in fact, that the star’s gravity might prevent the planet from rotating, which could give rise to extreme climate differences between day and night. Recent research, though, indicates that none of these issues are necessarily deal breakers (SN: 2/7/15, p. 7). “There’s no reason why a planet around an M star couldn’t be like Earth,” says Lisa Kaltenegger, an astrophysicist at Cornell. James Webb should be able to poke around in the atmospheres of a few habitable super-Earths around M dwarfs, though it’s going to need some targets first (SN: 5/17/14, p. 6). NASA’s premier planet hunter, the Kepler space telescope, (SN: 12/27/14, p. 20) found 1,039 exoplanets during its four-year primary mission, with 4,706 additional candidates awaiting confirmation. But most of Kepler’s finds are too distant for James Webb. That’s where TESS comes in. It will catalog all the short-period transiting worlds around the sun’s nearest neighbors. “Those are the ones that astronomers even decades from now are going to want to focus on,” says George Ricker, an MIT astrophysicist and principal investigator for the TESS mission. Unlike Kepler, which gazed in one direction at 150,000 stars, TESS will spend two years monitoring 200,000 stars all around the sky. To cover that much ground, TESS will stare at one spot for about 27 days before moving onto a new patch. That’s not great for finding Earth twins on year-long orbits, but it’s good for finding worlds in the habitable zones of M dwarfs. Based on Kepler’s results, astrophysicist Peter Sullivan, then at MIT, and colleagues calculated in 2015 that TESS should discover about 1,700 exoplanets. Of these, more than 500 could be less than twice the size of Earth, of which about 50 would lie in the habitable zones of their host stars. But picking biosignatures, or any signatures, out of those atmospheres is going to be difficult. Estimates vary, but James Webb will need roughly 200 hours to study one super-Earth around a nearby M dwarf, and those hours count only when the planet is passing in front of its star. There’s a debate happening right now over how hard to chase that dream, Caltech’s Knutson says. Given its sluggish pace, James Webb might get to look at only a couple of habitable super-Earths. Astronomers could lavish large amounts of time on one or two systems that might not even pan out. Or they could focus telescope resources on Neptunes, Jupiters or hot super-Earths, where researchers can amass a lot of other data about a wide variety of worlds. While James Webb might get lucky and spy some biosignatures, the dream of finding another planet like Earth will probably have to wait a few decades for a larger observatory to come along. The transit technique is powerful but inefficient. From our vantage point, most planets don’t transit their suns, and those that do transit only once every orbit. “To really give us the best probability of detecting life, we need to build a telescope that can do direct detection,” Rugheimer says. Direct detection requires snapping a picture of an exoplanet and looking for biosignatures such as oxygen and methane imprinted on light reflecting off its surface. Since this technique doesn’t require alignments between planets and suns, it can, in principle, work for any world around any star. But to catch an Earth 2.0, astronomers are going to need a bigger telescope. Consider again those aliens who are looking for us. They would struggle to see Earth even if they set up camp 4.2 light-years away at the star next door, Proxima Centauri (an M dwarf, by the way). It’s like trying to see the head of a quilting pin 28 meters to the right of a basketball while standing about 7,500 kilo-meters away — roughly the distance from Honolulu to Pittsburgh. And the basketball is 10 billion times as bright as the pin. No observatories come close to being able to capture an image of an Earth-like planet around a sunlike star. But astronomers are thinking about what it would take. One idea is to put a gigantic mirror in space equipped with a device that can block the light of the star, such as the High-Definition Space Telescope proposed by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy. To see a few dozen Earth twins and characterize their atmospheres, that telescope would need a mirror 12 meters across. That’s bigger than any optical telescope currently on the ground and has 25 times the light-collecting area of Hubble. Such an observatory “would be a huge undertaking relative to what we’ve done in space before,” Lunine says. “But relative to other programs this country has undertaken, it’s not.” One of the keys to success with the high-definition telescope is a coronagraph, a disk that blocks the light from any star the telescope points at. Many telescopes already use coronagraphs, especially spacecraft designed to look at the sun. James Webb will be outfitted with a coronagraph, though not one designed to search for other Earths. The downside to a coronagraph is that it requires exceptional control of light that enters the telescope, which complicates the design. Other proposals to detect Earth-like planets, such as the NASA-commissioned Exo-S concept, use a starshade, a separate spacecraft shaped, appropriately, like the petals of a sunflower. The starshade flies tens of thousands of kilometers away from the telescope and maintains perfect alignment to prevent starlight from hitting the mirror (SN: 7/12/14, p. 11). Since a starshade is free-floating and does all the lightsuppression work, it should be able to partner up with any telescope, even a relatively small one already in use. But no one has attempted formation flying in space at this scale. And every time astronomers want to look at a new star, the starshade would have to move around the telescope to maintain alignment, which could take days or weeks. All that movement will require fuel, which limits how many stars astronomers can search. Today these missions and others like them exist only in papers and PowerPoint slides posted online. The concepts, the fruits of a community-wide brainstorming session on how to allocate funding in the 2030s and beyond, will require massive financial and logistical resources, but some astronomers think it will be worth it once TESS and James Webb can point to where the nearest habitable locales might be. “Once we know where the potential habitable worlds are in our sky, I hope that will change a lot of people’s curiosity,” Kaltenegger says. “I would want to know if there are other habitable worlds. I wouldn’t want to just guess.” Everyone agrees that finding a world teeming with life elsewhere in the galaxy is going to be exceptionally difficult. “Maybe nature needs to be on our side,” says Mark Clampin, an astrophysicist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. “But it won’t stop people from trying very hard. And we’ll probably make a lot of discoveries along the way.” This article appears in the April 30, 2016, Science News with the headline, "Putting eyes on exoplanets: Finding signs of life is hard, but new telescopes will soon begin searching."

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Site: http://www.scientificcomputing.com/rss-feeds/all/rss.xml/all

By pushing NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope to its limits, an international team of astronomers has shattered the cosmic distance record by measuring the farthest galaxy ever seen in the universe. This surprisingly bright infant galaxy, named GN-z11, is seen as it was 13.4 billion years in the past, just 400 million years after the Big Bang. GN-z11 is located in the direction of the constellation of Ursa Major. “We’ve taken a major step back in time, beyond what we’d ever expected to be able to do with Hubble. We see GN-z11 at a time when the universe was only three percent of its current age,” explained principal investigator Pascal Oesch of Yale University. The team includes scientists from Yale University, the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI), and the University of California. Astronomers are closing in on the first galaxies that formed in the universe. The new Hubble observations take astronomers into a realm that was once thought to be only reachable with NASA’s upcoming James Webb Space Telescope. This measurement provides strong evidence that some unusual and unexpectedly bright galaxies found earlier in Hubble images are really at extraordinary distances. Previously, the team had estimated GN-z11’s distance by determining its color through imaging with Hubble and NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope. Now, for the first time for a galaxy at such an extreme distance, the team used Hubble’s Wide Field Camera 3 to precisely measure the distance to GN-z11 spectroscopically by splitting the light into its component colors. Astronomers measure large distances by determining the “redshift” of a galaxy. This phenomenon is a result of the expansion of the universe; every distant object in the universe appears to be receding from us because its light is stretched to longer, redder wavelengths as it travels through expanding space to reach our telescopes. The greater the redshift, the farther the galaxy. "Our spectroscopic observations reveal the galaxy to be even farther away than we had originally thought, right at the distance limit of what Hubble can observe," said Gabriel Brammer of STScI, second author of the study. Before astronomers determined the distance for GN-z11, the most distant galaxy measured spectroscopically had a redshift of 8.68 (13.2 billion years in the past). Now, the team has confirmed GN-z11 to be at a redshift of 11.1, nearly 200 million years closer to the Big Bang. “This is an extraordinary accomplishment for Hubble. It managed to beat all the previous distance records held for years by much larger ground-based telescopes,” said investigator Pieter van Dokkum of Yale University. “This new record will likely stand until the launch of the James Webb Space Telescope.” The combination of Hubble’s and Spitzer’s imaging reveals that GN-z11 is 25 times smaller than the Milky Way and has just one percent of our galaxy’s mass in stars. However, the newborn GN-z11 is growing fast, forming stars at a rate about 20 times greater than our galaxy does today. This makes an extremely remote galaxy bright enough for astronomers to find and perform detailed observations with both Hubble and Spitzer. The results reveal surprising new clues about the nature of the very early universe. “It’s amazing that a galaxy so massive existed only 200 million to 300 million years after the very first stars started to form. It takes really fast growth, producing stars at a huge rate, to have formed a galaxy that is a billion solar masses so soon,” explained investigator Garth Illingworth of the University of California, Santa Cruz. These findings provide a tantalizing preview of the observations that the James Webb Space Telescope will perform after it is launched into space in 2018. “Hubble and Spitzer are already reaching into Webb territory,” Oesch said. “This new discovery shows that the Webb telescope will surely find many such young galaxies reaching back to when the first galaxies were forming,” added Illingworth. This discovery also has important consequences for NASA’s planned Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST), which will have the ability to find thousands of such bright, very distant galaxies. The team’s findings have been accepted for publication in an upcoming edition of the Astrophysical Journal. The Hubble Space Telescope is a project of international cooperation between NASA and the European Space Agency. NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, MD, manages the telescope. The Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) in Baltimore conducts Hubble science operations. STScI is operated for NASA by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy in Washington. For more information about previous times Hubble broke the distance record, visit:

Sada P.V.,University of Monterrey | Sada P.V.,Universities for Research | Deming D.,Universities for Research | Deming D.,University of Maryland University College | And 15 more authors.
Publications of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific | Year: 2012

We obtained J-, H-, and JH-band photometry of known extrasolar planet transiting systems at the 2.1 m Kitt Peak National Observatory Telescope using the FLAMINGOS infrared camera between 2008 October and 2011 October. From the derived light curves we have extracted the midtransit times, transit depths and transit durations for these events. The precise midtransit times obtained help improve the orbital periods and also constrain transit-time variations of the systems. For most cases the published system parameters successfully accounted for our observed light curves, but in some instances we derive improved planetary radii and orbital periods. We complemented our 2.1 m infrared observations using CCD z'-band and B-band photometry (plus two Hα filter observations) obtained with the Kitt Peak Visitor Center Telescope, and with four H-band transits observed in 2007 October with the NSO's 1.6 m McMath-Pierce Solar Telescope. The principal highlights of our results are (1) Our ensemble of J-band planetary radii agree with optical radii, with the best-fit relation being (R p=R *) J= 0:0017 + 0:979(R p=R *) vis. (2) We observe starspot crossings during the transit of WASP-11/HAT-P-10. (3) We detect starspot crossings by HAT-P-11b (Kepler-3b), thus confirming that the magnetic evolution of the stellar active regions can be monitored even after the Kepler mission has ended. (4) We confirm a grazing transit for HAT-P-27/ WASP-40. In total, we present 57 individual transits of 32 known exoplanet systems. © 2012 The Astronomical Society of the Pacific. Source

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