As the brilliant comet 46P/Wirtanen streaked across the sky, NASA telescopes caught it on camera from multiple angles.
On April 18th, 2018, NASA deployed the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), a next-generation exoplanet hunting telescope that is expected to find thousands of planets in the coming years. Alongside other next-generation telescopes like the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), TESS will effectively pick up where space telescopes like Hubbleand Kepler left off.
On October 19th, 2017, the Panoramic Survey Telescope and Rapid Response System-1 (Pan-STARRS-1) in Hawaii announced the first-ever detection of an interstellar asteroid, named 1I/2017 U1 (aka. ‘Oumuamua). Originally thought to be a comet, this interstellar visitor quickly became the focus of follow-up studies that sought to determine its origin, structure, composition, and rule out the possibility that it was an alien spacecraft!
The ESA (European Space Agency) and NASA mission SOHO — short for Solar and Heliospheric Observatory — got a visit from an old friend this week when comet 96P entered its field of view on Oct. 25, 2017. The comet entered the lower right corner of SOHO’s view, and skirted up and around the right edge before leaving on Oct. 30. SOHO also spotted comet 96P in 1996, 2002, 2007 and 2012, making it the spacecraft’s most frequent cometary visitor.
Comets that take more than 200 years to make one revolution around the Sun are notoriously difficult to study. Because they spend most of their time far from our area of the solar system, many "long-period comets" will never approach the Sun in a person's lifetime. In fact, those that travel inward from the Oort Cloud -- a group of icy bodies beginning roughly 186 billion miles (300 billion kilometers) away from the Sun -- can have periods of thousands or even millions of years.
On August 15th, 1977, astronomers using the Big Ear radio telescope at Ohio State University detected a 72-second radio signal coming from space. This powerful signal, which quickly earned the nickname the “Wow! signal”, appeared to be coming from the direction of the Sagittarius Constellation, and some went so far as to suggest that it might be extra-terrestrial in origin.
The Earth has been the blue planet for as many as 3.8 billion years. Ancient sedimentary rock deposits and lava that cooled into characteristic pillow shapes provide irrefutable evidence that liquid water has existed at the Earth’s surface for at least this long. But given how many barren rocks there are in the galaxy, Earth’s abundant oceans raise the question of where all that water came from.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, astronomers made some profound discoveries about asteroids and comets within our Solar System. From discerning the true nature of their orbits to detecting countless small objects in the Main Asteroid Belt, these discoveries would inform much of our modern understanding of these bodies.
Comet hunters still have a chance to see comet 45P/Honda-Mrkos-Pajdušáková in the next few days using binoculars or a telescope. It’s the first of a trio of comets that will -- between now and the end of 2018 -- pass close enough to Earth for backyard observers to try to spot and for scientists to study using ground-based instruments.
The international team of astronomers observed the white dwarf WD 1425+540, about 170 light-years from Earth in the constellation Boötes (the Herdsman) . While studying the white dwarf’s atmosphere using both the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope and the W. M. Keck Observatory the team found evidence that an object rather like a massive comet was falling onto the star, getting tidally disrupted while doing so.
The Hubble Space Telescope is a workhorse which, despite its advanced years, keeps on producing valuable scientific data. In addition to determining the rate at which the Universe is expanding, spotting very distant galaxies, and probing the early history of the Universe, it has also observed some truly interesting things happening in nearby star systems.
NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) accomplished much during its first mission, which ran from December of 2009 to September of 2010. During the many months that it was active, the orbital telescope conducted an all-sky astronomical survey in the infrared band and discovered thousands of minor planets and numerous star clusters.
Establishing a sustained human presence somewhere other than Earth is a vital part of humanity’s future, no matter what. We know that Earth won’t last forever. We don’t know exactly which one of the many threats that Earth faces will ultimately extinguish life here, but life will be extinguished completely at some future point.
Even after nearly 20 years as an astronomer, I still believe the Perseid meteor shower in mid-August is one of the most spectacular astronomical events I have seen. If you are at all impressed by the majestic nature of the universe, you will not want to miss these Perseids, which usually peak around August 12. Beyond their aesthetic display, their very existence gives us a real connection to the solar system, its past formation, and thereby to the star and planet formation history of our entire galaxy.
Astronomers have found a unique object that appears to be made of inner Solar System material from the time of Earth’s formation, which has been preserved in the Oort Cloud far from the Sun for billions of years. Observations with ESO’s Very Large Telescope, and the Canada France Hawai`i Telescope, show that C/2014 S3 (PANSTARRS) is the first object to be discovered on a long-period cometary orbit that has the characteristics of a pristine inner Solar System asteroid. It may provide important clues about how the Solar System formed.
The origin of life on Earth has been a matter of intense debate throughout human history. Even today, scientists don’t know whether the molecular building blocks of life were created on Earth or whether they were brought here by comets and meteorites. This is obviously hugely important – if they were delivered to Earth then it seems plausible that they may have been transported to other planets, too.