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The Countdown, Episode 20 – Star Factory, Five New Exoplanets, Saturn Ring Rain, Planet-Naming Controversy, Missing Mars Lander Found

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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5) Star Factory

About 880 million years after the Big Bang, a huge galaxy was building new stars at an incredible pace. An international team of astronomers discovered the galaxy HFLS3 with help from 12 observatories all over the world.

HFLS3 is a starburst galaxy, which means it turns gas into stars at an extremely high rate. In fact, the enormous galaxy can draw on roughly 100 billion solar masses worth of gas to create about 3,000 stars a year. This production rate is 2,000 times greater than the Milky Way’s.

The prolific stellar factory is 12.8 billion light years from Earth, which means researchers see it as it was 12.8 billion years ago, when the universe was still a youthful sixpercent of its age now. This glimpse into the distant past could help scientists figure out when the universe developed the right conditions for galaxy formation.

You can read more about the massive star-making galaxy in the April 17 issue of the journal Nature.

4) Five New Exoplanets

This week, a report in the journal Science, announces the discovery of five new exoplanets orbiting the distant star Kepler 62. Scientists think the star’s two outermost planets have a radius about 1.5 times that of our own planet, making them Super Earths.  And there’s a chance they could harbor water, a necessary ingredient for life.

But just like other planets discovered by the Kepler space telescope, we can’t know for sure what’s on their surface. Kepler measures changes in light from very faint stars as their planets pass in front.  These planets are too far away to directly measure light leaving their surface and so we can’t verify their chemical makeup. Kepler 62 and its planets, for example, are about 1200 light years away.

Kepler looks deeply and narrowly into space, but this tunnel vision means we could be missing habitable exoplanets much closer to home. These planets would be close enough to measure light from their surface. That’s why two weeks ago, NASA announced a new telescope mission named TESS, the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, which will launch in 2017. TESS will scan an area 400 times that of Kepler to catch the brightest stars and, hopefully, the closest habitable exoplanets.

3) Saturn’s Ring Rain

Since the 1980s, astronomers have suspected that Saturn’s rings release water onto the planet’s surface. But now, a more detailed study reveals this rain is more frequent and covers larger regions of the planet than we expected.

When charged water particles from Saturn’s rings fall to the upper atmosphere far below, they reduce the electron density. This has a major effect on the types of particles and the temperature in Saturn’s atmosphere. And these changes are visible as a pattern of dark bands stretching across the planet’s surface.

Light-sensitive images from Hawaii’s Keck Observatory let astronomers study these bands in more detail than ever before. They found the dark areas cover about 30 to 43 percent of the atmosphere’s surface, which is a greater area than previous images of Saturn indicated.

You can read more about the rainy rings in the April 11 issue of the journal Nature.

3) Naming Controversy

If you’ve spent any time watching this show, you know exoplanets get saddled with terrible names like HR8799c and similar jumbles of letters and numbers. So why can’t we just rename them: Blame the International Astronomical Union, or IAU.

An organization called Uwingu is currently running a contest where you can pay to nominate and vote for the name of the closest known exoplanet– currently called Alpha Centauri B b. In response, the IAU announced you can’t buy the right to name a planet. According to their statement, “Such schemes have no bearing on the official naming process. The IAU wholeheartedly welcomes the public’s interest to be involved in recent discoveries, but would like to strongly stress the importance of having a unified naming procedure.”

Uwingu responded to the IAU by emphasizing the goal is to choose a popular nickname, not an official title. In the future, the IAU hinted they may consider adopting popular names for exoplanets. Until then, we’re stuck with alphabet soup.

1) Missing Mars Lander Found

Back in 1971, a Soviet mission made the first successful soft landing on the red planet. Unfortunately, the lander named Mars 3 transmitted for less than 15 seconds before the signal went dead. All traces of the failed mission disappeared–until now.

A group of Russian space fans has been looking for the long-lost lander in images from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Specifically, they’ve been pouring over a November 2007 photo of Mars 3′s last known location. But the photo contains 1.8 billion pixels of data, a resolution so high they needed to crowd-source the search. Finally, in December, they found candidates for four pieces of Mars 3’s hardware: the parachute, the heat shield, the retrorocket, and the lander.

And a new photo taken last month shows what looks to be the same objects. Although there could be another explanation, it’s exciting to imagine we’ve rediscovered a piece of space history. Plus, the news pairs nicely with recent images of the parachute that helped Curiosity land safely on Mars.

—Portions of the script above written by Sophie Bushwick & Eric R. Olson

[The text above is a modified transcript of the video.]

 

 

 

 

About the Author: Eric is multimedia journalist and producer who specializes in science and natural history. His work has appeared on the websites of Scientific American, Nature, Nature Medicine, Popular Science, Slate and The New York Times among many others. He is a former video producer & editor for Scientific American. Follow on Twitter @EricROlson.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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